INTERVIEW
 
Afghan endgame: Big deal
The Friday Times
15-21 February 2013
LONDON: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai pledged at a trilateral summit hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron that efforts will be made to strike a peace settlement with insurgent groups including the Taliban in Afghanistan in the next six months.

In a joint statement after the summit held at the British PM's countryside residence Chequers, Islamabad and Kabul also agreed to allow opening an office for the Taliban in Qatar, something the Afghan government has been strongly opposing.

"We certainly oppose an office for the Taliban in Qatar, simply because of the potential foreign influence on that office," Afghan presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said in an interview hours before Afghanistan conceded. "It can also be used for activities other than peace talks. Therefore, we have strong reservations," he said.

Addressing a joint news conference with Cameron after the summit, Karzai and Zardari agreed to sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement aimed at strengthening bilateral ties in the fields of security, border management and economy. According to a senior Afghan diplomat who was part of the negotiations, the focus of the trilateral summit was on the Afghan government's concerns on the track two peace efforts already underway between the US, Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Qatar. President Karzai, before flying to London for the summit, strongly condemned efforts by "foreign countries" to bypass the Kabul government and the Afghan High Peace Council (AHPC) in their talks with the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. He said peace and reconciliation efforts other than those initiated by the AHPC would not be acceptable to the Afghan people.

"Track two diplomatic efforts have been initiated in Qatar to facilitate the peace talks where the Taliban, the US and Pakistan are on board as well as leaders of the Northern Alliance," said Mirwais Afghan, a London based former BBC journalist. President Karzai had initially agreed to and facilitated the effort, he said. A meeting was held in Paris last year attended by representatives of the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, the Afghan government and the AHPC. Karzai backed off later because he thought the Afghan government was being ignored and bypassed, Mirwais Afghan said.

"As long as the main stakeholders - the US, Pakistan, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance - are on board, track two diplomacy is most likely to be successful," says Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad, a Quid-e-Azam fellow at Oxford University. Days after the summit, Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid turned down the AHPC's peace talks offer and wanted to talk directly with the Americans.

"I would see this as a very clear indication that if anything is going to work for peace in Afghanistan, it will have to be track two," said Afghan affairs analyst Aqeel Yousafzai. He said the AHPC would be taken on board at some point. Maulana Fazlur Rehman's visit to Qatar seems to be focused on bridging the gap between the Afghan Taliban and the AHPC. But the council has very little to contribute in the track two diplomatic efforts, Yousafzai said.

"The trilateral summit agreed that the truce will be signed between the Taliban and the AHPC and there will be no third party involved in the signing of the agreement, but the fact is that the Afghan government and the AHPC will have a very small role to play in the track two process," said the Afghan diplomat who did not want to be named. "As long as we are not ignored completely in the entire peace process, we have no other choice but to take what was offered during the trilateral summit," he said.

Military and intelligence chiefs of Afghanistan and Pakistan also met one on one, and agreed on strengthening coordination in the release of Taliban detainees from Pakistani jails and border management.

The Pakistani government has released about 20 Afghan Taliban leaders in the last few months, including the Taliban's former justice minister Mullah Norruddin Turabi, on the request of the AHPC to facilitate the peace process in Afghanistan. But the Afghans have been long demanding the release of Mullah Baradar, known as the de-facto chief of the Afghan Taliban and leader of the Quetta Shura.

Before the start of the summit, Pakistani and Afghan army chiefs General Ashfaq Kayani and Gen Sher M Karimi met off-the-record to help lessen the mistrust between the two countries and discuss the peace and reconciliation process, Faizi said.

Analysts believe Pakistan has managed to secure a great deal in the trilateral summit, especially the new terms of border management on the Durand Line, which include that the Afghans will now have to travel to Pakistan on a valid passport and visa. The 2,640-km porous border between the two countries has remained a point of dispute for decades.

The Afghan government does not formally recognise the Durand Line as an international border and even the Taliban government refused to entertain Pakistan's request to sign a treaty accepting the Durand Line as an international border.

According to the Afghan diplomat, Pakistan was pushing very hard on the matter for the last six months.

"Strategically it's a major gain for Pakistan," said a Pakistani diplomat who attended the trilateral summit. "Military and intelligence officials from the two countries have agreed to meet in Islamabad in February or March to discuss managing the Durand Line as a border."

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