Afghan talks begin: US, China add value to weight

 Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz Monday said a peaceful and stable Afghanistan would become a harbinger of regional stability and economic integration, which will not only create a favourable environment for greater trade and energy connectivity, but also stimulate cross-regional exchanges. He made these remarks in his keynote address that he delivered at the third China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Dialogue titled “Quest for peace in Afghanistan: Role of neighbouring countries”, organised by Pakistan-China Institute in collaboration with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. 

— Sartaj says Pakistan also committed to intra-Afghan reconciliation 

The dialogue, held in connection with the first meeting of Quadrilateral Contact Group (QCG) of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States, also discussed to explore ways and means of facilitating a politically-negotiated settlement to Afghan conflict. Aziz said that Pakistan will continue its endeavours for strengthening bilateral engagement with Afghanistan through deepening interaction in diverse fields. “We are also committed to facilitating an intra-Afghan reconciliation process aimed at bringing lasting peace to Afghanistan,” he added. 

The Adviser said that Pakistan, Afghanistan and China are three close neighbours having common interests and stakes in promoting peace and development in the region, adding the geo-strategic location of the three countries makes us important partners in transforming the region into a regional hub at the cross roads of East and West. 

He expressed the optimism that enduring peace and stability in Afghanistan can enable the three countries to reap economic benefits accruing from this natural strategic advantage. 

He said that Pakistan remains focused on strengthening engagement and collaboration with Afghanistan in the fields of security and counterterrorism with a view to creating a conducive environment for steering infrastructure and energy connectivity projects. 

“We are looking forward to the mega China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC) to become the catalyst for trans-regional commerce, trade, industry and investment flows,” he said, adding the project has been rightly termed a game changer as it has the potential to change the fortunes of our peoples by fostering employment, economic growth and development. 

Similarly, the projects like TAPI and CASA-1000 will help fulfil our energy needs, on the one hand, and build a stronger regional infra-structural base, on the other, he added. He pointed out that the fifth Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia held in Islamabad on 9 December, 2015 reflected an overarching regional and international consensus on a collective and co-ordinated approach in pursuing an Afghan-led reconciliation process. 

He said a Quadrilateral Contact Group has been set up between Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States to explore ways and means of facilitating a politically-negotiated settlement as the most viable option for achieving a lasting peace in Afghanistan. 

“We hope that these four countries will remain closely engaged in accordance with the principle of shared responsibility with a view to moving the Afghan reconciliation process forward towards a lasting outcome,” he hoped while referring to the first meeting of the QCG also held on the day. 

However, he said that we need to be cognisant that the reconciliation process has to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned as an externally imposed settlement is neither desirable nor would it be sustainable. The role of Pakistan, China and the United States is basically to facilitate the process, he said, adding political reconciliation by nature is a complex process requiring time, patience and sense of accommodation by the concerned parties with a view to arriving at a win-win solution. 

Aziz further said that Pakistan is pursuing a policy of good neighbourly relations for creating an atmosphere of mutual trust and confidence with all the neighbouring and regional countries. “Respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries remains the cardinal elements of our approach,” he said, adding Pakistan’s commitment and persistence in pursuing such principled and forward-looking approach has received recognition from the international community and regional countries. Referring to the issue of terrorism, he said that terrorism is a major threat to global and regional peace, adding Pakistan has suffered huge human and economic losses due to the menace. 

He said sacrifices in the struggle against terrorism have further strengthened Pakistan’s resolve. He said the counter-terrorism policy is based on zero tolerance for any terrorist group or outfit, adding the indiscriminate action against terrorist outfits in the Zarb-e-Azb is an un-refutable evidence of our strong conviction. “We believe that close cooperation at bilateral and regional levels is vital to eliminate this scourge and realise our shared goal of economic integration and connectivity,” he underscored. Syed Hamed Gailani, deputy leader of the national Islamic Front of Afghanistan, while speaking to the forum, described removing the distrust and stopping the blame-game between Pakistan and Afghanistan as the pre-requisite in order to move forward. 

He said that expectations should not be unrealistic and peace mechanism should be set up as to who should talk to whom, adding, in the past the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai also tried to resolve the conflict but he failed. 

“I would strongly recommend forming a peace mechanism first and then bringing the two sides [Taliban, Afghan government] for face to-face interaction,” he said, adding Afghan High Peace Council should also be re-organised, as the forum is a road for the way forward. He further said that apart from Pakistan, China and the US, some other friendly European countries of Afghanistan should also join the peace process to make it more effective. 

Zhao Lijian, deputy chief of mission of China, while speaking, assured his country’s full support to an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process as well in the reconstruction and development of the war-torn Afghanistan. He said that China is sincerely facilitating the peace process, adding his country believes that support of neighbouring and regional countries as well as international community is also very important to achieve the desired results of sustainable peace in Afghanistan. 

Agencies adds: Pakistan Monday opened four-country talks aimed at luring the Afghan Taliban back to the negotiating table with the Kabul government, even as the insurgents wage an unprecedented winter campaign of violence. The talks in Islamabad, announced in December, come as the Taliban’s insurgency intensifies, particularly in the country’s south, testing the capacity of Afghanistan’s overstretched military and placing pressure on Pakistan to rein in its one-time proxies. 

Some analysts hope the added presence of China and the United States may help overcome mistrust between Kabul and Islamabad, though it remains unclear when the Taliban themselves will return to the negotiating table. They are not part of this week’s talks. A first round of dialogue with the Taliban themselves was held in July but collapsed after the group belatedly confirmed their leader Mullah Omar was dead. 

The news sparked infighting between senior Taliban leaders and the group’s new chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour, which in turn led to the creation of a new faction headed by Mohamed Rasool in November. Mansour himself was shot and wounded near the Pakistani city of Quetta in December, apparently by one of his own men, according to sources with the group. 

A senior Taliban source from Mansour’s faction told AFP that Pakistan had been in touch with Taliban leaders, but the group was waiting to see whether their rivals from Rasool’s faction were also likely to attend future talks. “As far as I know, the Taliban leadership is willing to attend any such meeting in future but we will also see which other Afghan group or a Taliban splinter group will be invited for these proposed peace talks,” he said. Rahimullah Yousufzai, an expert on the group, termed the talks an “important development”, adding the presence of the US and China provided extra weight. 

But he cautioned: “The Taliban have not yet showed their willingness to talk. They said their first priority is to end their differences. In my opinion the splinter Rasool group will come but the presence of Mansour’s group is very important, so let us wait to see how they react.” 

But despite the internal rifts and the onset of winter, when the Taliban traditionally break off fighting, the insurgents are still staging brazen attacks. In September they briefly seized the northern provincial capital of Kunduz, and in recent weeks they have seized large swathes of the key opium-rich district of Sangin in the southern province of Helmand, their traditional stronghold. Observers say the intensifying fighting highlights a push by the militants to gain greater concessions during any future direct talks. 

Sartaj Aziz told The Associated Press earlier. “Look at Bamiyan,” he said, referring to the Taliban’s destruction in the summer of 2001 of some of the world’s most precious statues of Buddha. The Taliban blew up the statues, ignoring the roars of dissent, including from Pakistan. 

Aziz refused to say whether Pakistan has a list of Taliban representatives prepared to enter into peace negotiations. The existence of such a list was announced Sunday by Javid Faisal, deputy spokesman for Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. Meanwhile, a breakaway Taliban group said Monday it was ready for talks. The faction, which emerged following the revelation last year that the Taliban leader and founder Mullah Mohammed Omar had died two years ago, is believed to be relatively small and its absence from the battlefield is unlikely to be a game changer. 

Imtiaz Gul, whose Center for Research and Security Studies has delved deeply into the Afghan conflict and Pakistan’s decades-old involvement, says Pakistan has significant leverage with the Taliban, led by Omar’s replacement Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. 

Militants in both countries are allied, and getting rid of the Haqqanis, for example, could unleash a violent backlash inside Pakistan where the army has been fighting for several years to defeat a coalition of militant groups largely based in its border areas with Afghanistan, Gul said. That battle has been brutal with thousands of Pakistani soldiers killed and wounded and thousands more Pakistani civilians killed in deadly retaliatory suicide attacks by the militants. 

Gul said last month’s trip by Pakistan’s army chief General Raheel Sharif, who travelled to Afghanistan unaccompanied by the country’s powerful ISI intelligence agency, long considered the force behind the Taliban, was a signal the military was ready to move away from past practices and center future policy decisions only at the army headquarters. 

Changes won’t come quickly, says Gul, “but important for us is to turn the page (from supporting militants) and I think General Raheel Sharif has turned that page.” The Taliban, struggling to consolidate their leadership council following Omar’s death, have drawn their line in the sand: no official talks with Kabul on a peaceful end to their protracted and bloody war until direct talks can be held with the United States. “We want talks with the Americans first because we consider them a direct party,” the Taliban official said in a face-to-face interview with the AP. 

The Taliban want recognition of their Qatar office under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name they used when they ruled Afghanistan until they were ousted by the US-led coalition in 2001. They also want the United Nations to remove the Taliban from its wanted list and they want their prisoners released from Afghan jails. 

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wants no part in giving the Taliban official recognition. Maulvi Shazada Shaeid, a representative on Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, tasked with seeking peace with the Taliban, said the distance between the two sides is vast, holding out little hope for peace. “In the current situation, it is not possible to bring peace,” he said.

Source: business Recorder