The Afghan reconciliation talks have become clouded by multiple channels and competing approaches. All parties, including the Taliban, suspect the others’ motives.
“This trilateral summit is not going to achieve much,” predicted Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani diplomat.
Just before Karzai left Kabul for the Pakistani capital, he told the Wall Street Journal that he thought the Taliban was “definitely” interested in a settlement. “People in Afghanistan want peace, including the Taliban,” he said.
But the movement is by no means monolithic: It includes al-Qaeda-aligned fighters who demand the expulsion of all foreign troops from Afghanistan, others who seek restoration of the pre-2001 Taliban government and refuse to share power with Karzai, and moderates who see the wisdom of winding down a decade-long war that has bloodied all sides.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told reporters Thursday that her country is open to any suggestion from Karzai on how to move the settlement process along. That would presumably include Pakistan using its influence with the Taliban, although Khar made a point of saying she didn’t get any specifics from the Afghans.
“What we told them is that you need to clarify what it is you want,” she said. “They have been wanting us to facilitate something. . . . We want complete clarity as to what that thing is.”
Several weeks ago, U.S. officials were invited to attend a meeting that Karzai’s government set up with Taliban representatives outside Afghanistan. The meeting, which Karzai revealed in the Journal interview, opened a separate channel from the series of talks the Obama administration began in late 2010 with Mohammed Tayeb al-Agha, a representative of Taliban leader Mohammad Omar. But the Karzai channel has so far had no follow-up.
Administration officials have said their meetings with Agha are designed to establish “confidence-building measures,” including the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar where the Afghan government could be brought into the discussions.
The administration has asked the Taliban to make public statements renouncing international terrorism and supporting the Afghan constitution. For its part, the Taliban wants the transfer of five Afghan prisoners being held in the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The prisoners would be transferred to house arrest in Qatar in two tranches, with a group of three to be followed by two additional detainees within 60 days. The administration must notify Congress 30 days in advance of any transfer and certify there is no risk the prisoners could return to the battlefield.
Karzai initially rejected the tentative deal, on the grounds that he had not been sufficiently consulted, and recalled his ambassador to Qatar. The proposed arrangement was also sharply criticized by some U.S. lawmakers.
The Qatar channel — along with U.S. hopes that the Afghan government eventually will participate — has been at a standstill until Karzai resolves his strained relationship with the Qataris. Bringing the complications full circle, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani last week made his own visit to Qatar, where he signed a major natural gas agreement.
Iran, which has trade and energy interests involving Afghanistan and Pakistan, has its own conflicted views on the war. While eager to remove the U.S. military presence on its eastern border, the Islamic republic is far closer to the former Northern Alliance of anti-Taliban tribes in Afghanistan than it is to the insurgents and shares their wariness of any settlement that grants the Taliban political power.
“It is certainly one of the greatest diplomatic challenges in recent history,” said Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao, a prominent Pakistani who has led peace efforts for years and is scheduled to meet here with Karzai.
Among the challenges are the relentless U.S. drone attacks: Two on Thursday targeted al-Qaeda-linked militants and Taliban leaders in North Waziristan, local security officials said. The missile strikes, which are carried out in support of NATO operations in Afghanistan, are immensely unpopular in Pakistan — and when innocent people are killed, they provoke sympathy for the militants.
Even so, some nonviolent Islamists here see progress in the overlapping talks and meetings.
“Things are moving ahead now, but it will take time,” Maulana Sami ul-Haq, a pro-Taliban cleric in Pakistan known to have influence over the Afghan Taliban, said in an interview before the summit. “Ultimately, we will talk and this thing will be overcome.”
DeYoung reported from Washington.