Afghanistan, Pakistan Draft Plan for Talks With Taliban

Karzai Gul Zardari
Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, left, Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, center, and Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's president. Photographer: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Afghanistan and Pakistan are pursuing a new peace initiative that would permit members of the Taliban to be removed from the United Nations terrorist list to join negotiations and hold Afghan government posts.

The five-step blueprint, entitled “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015,” was initiated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in coordination with Pakistan and formally presented to Pakistani officials last month by Salahuddin Rabbani, the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, Azizullah Din Mohammad, a senior council member, said in a phone interview yesterday.

The draft plan, first reported by McClatchy Newspapers, says Taliban who join the Afghan government or take part in national, parliamentary or provincial elections must sever any ties to al-Qaeda, renounce violence, and respect the Afghan Constitution, said a U.S. official familiar with the proposals.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private diplomatic communications, the official said the plan almost certainly would give the ultra-conservative Islamic movement de facto control of Pashtun-dominated areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan. That, the official said, would have troubling implications for women’s rights, the education of girls and efforts to crack down on opium poppy growing.

The plan calls for Pakistan, rather than the U.S., to arrange direct talks in Saudi Arabia between Taliban representatives and the Afghan government next year after an Afghan cease-fire is in place.

“It diminishes the U.S. role in coordinating the talks, but it does not mean we won’t respect U.S. peace efforts at all,” said Din Mohammad, a former warlord who fought the Soviet Union in the 1980s and participated in talks on the plan last month in Pakistan.

Direct Talks

The U.S. continues to support an Afghan-led peace process and welcomes initiatives through which Afghans sit down with other Afghans in pursuit of that goal, said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In order to facilitate direct talks, the blueprint calls for Pakistan to release more Taliban prisoners by the first half of 2013, while the two countries and the U.S. push the United Nations to remove Taliban leaders willing to engage in peace talks from the terrorism list, an official of the peace council said on condition of anonymity. They then would be given safe passage to participate in negotiations, the official said.

Travel Waivers

In June 2011, the UN Security Council split the international sanctions regime for al-Qaeda and the Taliban to encourage the Taliban to join reconciliation efforts. There now is one blacklist of individuals and organizations accused of links to al-Qaeda and a second -- with 132 names -- for those linked to the Taliban.

The Afghans have asked the council to streamline its procedures to allow individuals on the Taliban list to travel for peace talks. Although it’s sometimes honored in the breach, the existing process for granting waivers is extremely cumbersome, and a move to facilitate temporary exemptions, to which all 15 council members must agree, will come up for a decision on Dec. 17.

The Afghan government has long considered Pakistan a hindrance to peace because the Taliban and other militant Islamist groups have bases there and receive financing from the Persian Gulf and elsewhere through Pakistani channels. Karzai said an assassination attempt last week on Asadullah Khalid, the director of the Afghan intelligence service was planned in Pakistan, though not by the Taliban.

Positive Role

Nevertheless, members of the Afghan peace council said Pakistan also can play a positive role.

“Because it backs insurgents, that’s why the country can also encourage them for peace,” Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, another senior member of the peace council, said in a phone interview yesterday. “No country, including the U.S., can help Afghanistan with its peace plans except Pakistan.”

“The Taliban leadership and Taliban sanctuaries are all based in Pakistan, and they know very well how to put forward our peace efforts and bring them to the negotiating table,” he said. “We must not forget Pakistan’s effective role, and without their help we cannot achieve peace.”

The U.S. is due to withdraw the majority of its combat troops by the end of 2014. Afghan and U.S. officials have accused Pakistan of allowing Taliban militants and allied guerrillas groups sanctuary on its soil in a bit to ensure it has a pivotal role in determining Afghanistan’s future.

Vulnerable Borders

“Pakistan now feels more secure as it’s got a leading role in Afghanistan’s end game,” Talat Masood, a retired army lieutenant general and security analyst in Islamabad, said of the talks plan. “Pakistan’s main concern was that if it’s left out in this peace process, a future set-up in Kabul will be a hostile one, making its western borders vulnerable.”

Pakistan has realized that it should not limit its outreach in Afghanistan to the Pashtun population, Masood said. “That’s a game changer which has also softened up opposition within the Karzai regime for Pakistan.”

Pakistan has made a “welcome shift” toward implementing what the blueprint proposes, Din Mohammad said. “Pakistan did not ignore our enduring peace plan, but instead they promised they would help implement our plan and they freed several Taliban prisoners last month in order to endorse our plan.”

“If the plan succeeds, then we will have a permanent peace. And if it is not implemented, the country’s 2014 situation will be the worst ever,” he said.

Turkey Talks

Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari have discussed the plan in Ankara, Turkey, this week, and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, visiting Afghanistan, said Karzai had accepted an invitation from President Barack Obama to visit Washington during the week of Jan. 7.

The next Afghan-Pakistani meeting “will be held in the near future by the two countries’ officials, including our Islamic and religious scholars, and that may be held in Kabul,” Din Mohammad said.

“It’s not clear whether this power-sharing offer will attract hard-line Taliban to start negotiations,” said Masood in a phone interview today. “This is an attempt to split moderate Taliban from the hardliners -- and it might work.”

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