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Kabul-Taliban Talks in Murree: A Breakthrough, or Business as Usual?

Buried amidst the banner news on varying shades of Greek economic distress and the cat-and-mouse game among the ethnic and sectarian contenders in the Levant, a dramatic but no less crucial development regarding Afghanistan has remained rather confined to the margins.

On 7 July, the second-tier leadership of the Taliban and Kabul government met in the summer resort of Murree to ‘test the waters’, with the parleys having been facilitated by Pakistan, while diplomats from the United States and China attended as observers. No prior news or proclamation emanated from President Ashraf Ghani or any of his spokespersons, nor did Taliban’s media contact, Zabeehullah Mujahid let the media know of it. Pakistanis remained tight lipped displaying evasiveness over the identities of the participants and the ground covered by them yet they could not hide their pleasure over “having facilitated talks” that disproved all those sections which have always viewed Pakistan as the fountainhead of most of the regional imbroglios.

Amidst a high-profile visit by Ashraf Ghani and a special military welcome accorded to him in Rawalpindi, followed by visits to Kabul by Nawaz Sharif and General Raheel Sharif, both the regimes had proclaimed to work in tandem against militancy besides sharing vital intelligence on insurgents. In the same vein, Kabul and Islamabad had reiterated their cognisance of roadblocks, most of all suspicions on all sides given the prolonged and complex nature of warfare and militancy. On the heel of the attack on the Afghan Parliament on 22 June and some border skirmishes, some analysts had begun pinpointing the hollowness of Pak-Afghan bilateralism that is largely owed to Ghani’s substantive shift towards Pakistan and Beijing seeking their help instead of blaming Islamabad for all the ills. According to the Kabul delegation, their Taliban counterparts talked about the withdrawal of the remaining foreign troops besides release of the {Taliban} prisoners and lifting of the UN sanctions on their movement. The Kabul regime, as per Hekmat Karzai, expressed its willingness to discuss all issues including some amendments in the national constitution. It appears that the next round of negotiations is to be held in China, which enjoys close proximity with Pakistan, impactful clout in Kabul and a growing interface with the Taliban. In his Eid message on 15 July, Mullah Muhammad Omar has crucially endorsed talks seeking political solution to the issues including the presence of foreign troops. Appearing a week after the Murree negotiations, this statement by the leader of the Taliban is quite significant and may help neutralise sectional opposition within the movement itself. 

Initially, only the BBC had identified Hekmat Karzai as the Kabul envoy whose own brief comments on return to Kabul reflected a sense of careful optimism without giving out any further details on the future course of action. A Pashtun from Kandahar, Hekmat Karzai, is the Deputy Foreign Minister in Ashraf Ghani’s cabinet, and a cousin of the former president, he is the founder of Afghanistan’s Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies. Hekmat Karzai has held academic and diplomatic positions in Singapore and Washington, respectively. 

He lost his father in Pakistan in the 1980s in some family feud while his brother Hashem died in Kandahar in a suicide attack in July 2014. Belonging to a prominent Pashtun tribe with a needed academic and diplomatic experience, Hekmat has the potential to deal both with the Taliban and his Pakistani interlocutors more confidently. Such credentials could be helpful largely because the Taliban are ethnically Pashtuns, who emerged during the 1990s in areas around Kandahar. Mullah Muhammad Omar’s village is apparently not too far from this second largest Afghan city, which enjoys closer historical and commercial relations with the neighbouring Pashtun regions in Pakistani Balochistan. 

Admiral Mike Mullen, on the eve of his retirement had vocally snubbed Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, for nefariously protecting the Taliban to spearhead militancy in Afghanistan. Such accusations, hurtful to Pakistanis at large, had become a regular mantra since the 30+nations fighting their longest-ever war and having spent more than a trillion dollars on military hardware along with losing hundreds of soldiers, needed some explanations to their constituents. Iraq fiasco had further put U.S.-led alliance on the defensive and from “do more” it turned into a routine rebuke of Pakistan leaving all the Western problems and predicament at its doors. Osama bin Laden’s discovery and death in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in May 2011, despite all the niggling questions for Washington and Islamabad, zeroed the spotlight on Pakistan, which, instead of being a casualty of a massive warfare next door, was deemed to be a sinister accomplice and abetter of insurgency across the Durand Line.[1] A few journalists and academics, often owing to their personal gripe, heaped contempt on Pakistan for allegedly hosting and arming insurgents so as to bleed Western troops. Scorn in such outpourings was specially reserved for Pakistani Army and the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), who were thanklessly playing a double game.[2] Former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, like several American military and diplomatic personnel, would frequently lambast Pakistan for hosting Taliban leaders and indirectly implicated in insurgency against the NATO and Afghan troops.

An often-irate President Hamid Karzai, as per Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British Ambassador to Kabul and later London’s Af-Pak envoy, had gradually become confined to his palace and a small coterie of advisors with occasional outbursts against Pakistan and other ‘foreign masters’. In a private conversation, Karzai had even Quixotically threatened to lead his troops towards Indus across the Khyber Pass. [3] Interestingly, Marvin Weinbaum, an American expert on the region, in his article just a day before these talks had warned of AfPak mutuality having been “stalled”, betraying a grave sense of dismay over the possibility of tenable peace in Afghanistan.[4] Given the length and costs of this warfare—perhaps the most expensive in NATO’s career—and with its stupendous waste of Afghan lives, infrastructure and environment, hopes for a peaceful resolution have to be definitely guarded. Quite a few Western journalists, generals and diplomats, in their retirement had begun to urge for talks with the Taliban since military-centred policies were not delivering; and instead, insurgency seemed to be gaining ground. With Iraq already debilitated through total chaos advice for some indirect, Vietnam-style parleys was steadily gaining ground in Washington, London and Brussels. Books such as Afgansty were apt reminders of the serious risks of getting bogged down in Afghanistan, as had been experienced by the Soviets.[5] In addition, with Barack Obama ensconced in the White House, there was a pressure to close down Guantanamo besides ending these two wars in two Muslim countries since he had already defined these as his core policy objectives. He withdrew American troops from Iraq; multiplied drone attacks; and sent in military reinforcements into Afghanistan as a ‘surge’ despite embarrassing developments owing to personal escapades by two prized generals, Stanley McChrystle and David Petraeus.[6] 

Mullah Omar has been away from the public eye since 2001 appearing only in his Eid messages conveyed through his messengers germinating all kinds of speculation. At the same time, many Taliban would be reluctant to give away their enduring and battle-hardy tradition of resisting foreign ‘occupiers’ and non-Muslim ‘invaders’. They held strong objections against Hamid Karzai’s presidency, which had come about through the Bonn Conference of 2002 at the behest of external forces and their Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara allies within the Northern Alliance. Hamid Karzai, in his early tenure, had gone along with Western alliance at the expense of his possible leeway with the Taliban for whom he had even worked as an intermediary during the 1990s. Yet like Tony Blair and Pervez Musharraf, his popularity largely rested outside his own native land. The disputatious presidential elections of 2009 widely criticised by Western observers, and recurrent stories of corruption began to vitiate contemporary world opinion about the Kabul government, which was viewed as only serving the partisan interests of Northern Alliance.

The murder in July 2011 of Ahmad Wali Karzai, President Karzai’s half brother and an American citizen with extensive business interests in Kandahar by his security guard further affected the latter. At his brother’s funeral, an emotional president, appealed to the Taliban for peace by observing: “My message for [the Taliban] is that my countrymen, my brothers, stop killing your own people. It's easy to kill and everyone can do it, but the real man is the one who can save people's lives”.[7] However, in the same 2011, the Afghan president alienated the Taliban by strongly condemning the U.S.-led efforts to begin negotiations with them in Qatar. It was owing to Karzai’s nonchalance and a possible split within the Obama Administration that those parleys were scuttled soon after their inception and Taliban’s office was closed down by Qatari authorities. Hamid Karzai now felt even more isolated and bitter and that is where frequent criticism of Pakistan and occasionally of his Western backers became a norm.  Karzai’s parting comments in September 2014 largely summed it up: "This is not our war, it is a foreigners´ war; it is based on their goals… America didn´t want peace. America should be honest with Afghanistan. What they say and what they do should be the same”.[8] 

Taliban in 2011 were formidable but not as strong as they are today. Excepting some 12,000 troops, most of the NATO and ISAF have left Afghanistan, which for the Taliban is their victory in the tradition of erstwhile exits of the British, Russian and the Soviet forces. Of course, most fatalities have been Afghans, irrespective of their being Taliban and non-Taliban Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. One of the poorest countries in the world that never attacked any other country per se has been on the receiving end of some of the most devastating and equally sustained bombing campaigns, frisking, profiling, midnight raids and drone attacks accompanied with the horrid psychological effects for the injured and bereaved families. Of course, Al-Qaeda used Afghanistan unjustifiably in staging their daredevil attacks in Africa and the United States but in the process Afghanistan, Pakistan and perhaps the Muslim world at large came under a severe purview reaffirming the Hutingtonian thesis of clash of cultures. The loss of numerous Western troops, destabilisation of Pakistan with 60, 000 deaths due to terror attacks, and military operations still costing many more lives especially in tribal areas are some of the ramifications of post-9/11 policies. The invasion of Iraq, 7/7, exceptionalisation of Muslims in the West and dissolution of Libya and now Syria along with the emergence of rent seeking groups such as Boko Haram and Daesh are gravely linked with 9/11 and its posthumous. The Taliban like Mullah Zaeef have complained of their country having been grievously scapegoated for somebody else’s crime, while the Musharraf regime opted to become a willing surrogate against the former.[9]  The Taliban, as per their account, were not protecting Osama bin Laden nor were they in league with Al-Qaeda’s global plans and were even prepared to hand over Saudi Islamists to another country, yet Washington was intent upon revenge and now fifteen years later is itself exhausted with Daesh, Putin and Beijing all vying for more space.[10] 

The exposure of American weakness owing to overstretch and obvious failures in several Muslim regions are not only resulting in the weakening of post-colonial states, they are equally spawning trans-national actors.[11] Today’s Taliban, like Washington and Brussels, may be suffering from fatigue and are possibly willing to give peace a chance. Perhaps, they want to afford Washington an honourable exit from its Afghan quagmire and with a more co-optive Ghani they could eventually strike a deal with the fellow Afghan president, who, after all has been elected with an unprecedented majority and was not imposed by outsiders. The Taliban might also be apprehensive of the growing threat from Daesh, which has already made some inroads in Afghanistan with some Afghan and Pakistani Taliban already subscribing to the creed of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Khilafat. Pakistan often espoused for a political resolution even during the time when NeoCons held sway in Washington, though 2011 might have been the worst year for Pak-American relations given the Abbottabad operation and Raymond Davis affair where a CIA operative killed two Pakistanis in Lahore resulting in mass demonstrations and torching of several lorries taking NATO’s supplies into Afghanistan. Certainly, President Obama wants to leave the White House by ending the war that his predecessor had begun in the wake of 9/11 besides mending relations with Tehran though in Israel and across the Muslim world he appears like a forlorn figure. Pakistan, earlier suspicious of Hamid Karzai’s closer mutuality with India, now feels that the Ghani government would not allow any anti-Pakistani militant groups on its soil which may ease the former’s predicament both with its own Taliban and Baloch militants. The Pakistani establishment does not talk anymore about Afghanistan as their strategic depth vis-à-vis India and instead accepts the fact that a peaceful Afghanistan is in the region’s interest. Afghanistan also feels reassured that the Pakistani military, while pursuing its year-long operation Zarb-i-Azb, has made it difficult for Haqqanis and other such groups to operate from its tribal belt and thus could be a part of solution. 

China’s leadership under President Xi Jinping perceives Pakistan and Afghanistan as vital strategic and economic links with West Asia. The revival of the Silk Road as an artery of trade and plans for a Pakistan-China Economic Corridor are two ambitious megaprojects facilitating China a land-based access to Europe as well as the Persian Gulf and may also help pacify Uighur Muslims in Sinjiang. With the Russians more preoccupied in Ukraine and Americans suffering from fatigue and newer challenges, China sees it as an opportune moment to present itself as a stakeholder in peace in Southwest Asia. The Chinese already maintain reasonable investments in Afghanistan which is supposed to be sitting on vital minerals and significant energy routes, and with India slightly neutralised due to recent Delhi-Beijing summits, President Jinping is willing to play a more visible role in resolving the Afghan conflict. Both Pakistanis and Afghans are not only eager for Chinese investments in developing infrastructures but are also receptive to a greater geopolitical role since China enjoys the most successful public diplomacy in the region unlike other Western countries, or even Russia. Turkey and China both have strong credentials in the region and at some stage they can further push these efforts for peace and reconciliation. In the meantime, the situation remains transitional and greater care and optimism are needed towards confidence building over and above discretionary interests. Only the future will tell whether the talks held in the hill station of Murree may prove a new beginning, or merely an isolated event. 

[1] For some valid questions regarding this operation, see Seymour Hersh, “The Killing of Osama bin Laden”, London Review of Books, No 37, 10, 21 May 2015.

[2] For instance, Carlotta Gall, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, New York, 2014; and, C. Christine Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War, Delhi, 2014.

[3] “Once, getting very excited, President Karzai told me that, if Musharraf did not accede to some particular demand (I forget what), he, Karzai, would personally head a Pashtun march on the Attock bridge across the Indus (the jumping-off point for many invasions in the other direction) and lead an attack into the Punjab itself”. Sherard Cowper-Coles, Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign, London, 2012, p. 69.

[4] Marvin Weinbaum, “The Peace Window is Closing for AfPak”, Foreign Policy, 6 July 2015.

[5] Rodric Braithwaite, Afgansty: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89, London,

[6] The former headed the surge in Afghanistan while, Petraeus, following his retirement headed the CIA. McChrystle, in an interview with The Rolling Stones, had critiqued Obama whereas Petraeus was found compromising his official position while in a relationship with a woman in Florida.

[7] “Afghan president’s brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, buried”, BBC 13 July, 2011.

[8] Quoted in The News, 23 September 2014.

[9] For two contrasting versions, see Mulla Abdus Salam Zaeef, My Life with the Taliban, London, 2011; and, Pervez Musharraf, In the Line of Fire: A Memoir, London, 2006. 

[10] Many studies are finding serious faults with the American policies in areas like education and social sector where military priorities overrode Afghanistan societal prerogatives. See, Azmat Khan, “Ghost Students, Ghost Teachers, Ghost Schools”, BuzzFeedNews, 9 July 2015.

[11] Taliban supporters in Pakistan and elsewhere feel that these rag-tag radicals are in fact holy warriors fighting against powerful forces of occupation who had to be resisted in the tradition of prophetic Jihad. Maulana Samiul Haq’s recent autobiography highlights this sense of moral uprighteousness against what he calls Western arrogance and long-time hostility towards Islam as per the traditions of the Crusades and colonialism. Maulana Samiul Haq, Afghan Taliban. War of Ideology, Struggle for Peace, Islamabad, 2015.

Iftikhar H. Malik is Professor of History at Bath Spa University, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society as well as the Muslim Institute. Author of several books, Iftikhar, an MCR at Oxford’s Wolfson College, published Pakistan: Democracy, Terrorism and the Building of a Nation (2010).