In a move that will likely bring a dramatic shift to the direction of peace talks in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has announced that he will stop talks with the Taliban and focus efforts on Pakistan.
The status of peace talks have been uncertain since a suicide bomber killed the head of Mr. Karzai’s High Peace Council, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, less than two weeks ago.
Though the Taliban have not claimed responsibility for the killing, the assassination raised questions about the insurgency’s willingness to engage in peace talks.
Karzai’s announcement that the Afghan government will now focus negotiation efforts on Pakistan comes as an acknowledgement that previous peace talks were not working. But many observers say that they worry the president’s new push to involve Pakistan more may not achieve better results.
“For the last three years, the Afghan government made a lot of efforts to talk with the government opposition. The talks were not useless, but assassinations, suicide attacks, and violations by the opposition increased,” wrote Siamak Herawi, deputy spokesman for Karzai, in an e-mail to the Monitor. “After many meetings with the country’s elders, Soviet resistance leaders, and the religious scholars’ council, the president wanted to change the procedure of negotiations.”
Last fall Karzai formed the High Peace Council to reach out to the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Led by Mr. Rabbani and many other key Taliban opposition figures, the group was criticized from the start as an ineffectual outreach group and did not produce any significant results over the last year.
Meanwhile, the Karzai government has been accused of undercutting other negotiation efforts by allegedly leaking information about Taliban interlocutor Tayeb Agha to the media, which caused talks to collapse between the US and the Islamist organization.
“The assassination of Rabbani caused the whole peace process to make a 180 degree turn,” says Younas Fakor, an independent political analyst in Kabul. “I believe that Pakistan is the right group to speak with, but … the way that Karzai has raised this issue, I believe his plan will not work. Pakistan will never come forward and start negotiations the way Karzai chose.”
Could allegations spoil talks with Pakistan?
Among most involved with the negotiations, there is a general consensus that they must include Pakistan.
Afghan insurgents have long used Pakistan as a safe haven and a growing number of high-level Afghan and Western officials have accused Pakistan of direct involvement in supporting the insurgency here. This has led to the general perception that you can’t make peace with the Taliban without also negotiating with Pakistan.
However, many observers say while they agree with the sentiment of Karzai’s latest announcement, they worry that he may have already damaged any hope of successful talks by coming forward without a clear plan and making allegations about Pakistani support of the insurgency.
“Afghans never advanced their concern properly. Making allegations is not a good way to improve relations with Pakistan,” says Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist and independent analyst.
While Karzai has yet to announce a specific outline for his new negotiation plan, Mr. Herawi says the president will lay out his new strategy in a speech in the coming days.
Those who’ve already been involved in the peace process say they doubt the new plan will completely ignore talking to the Taliban.
“We’ve included Pakistan and we knew the importance of Pakistan’s role in making peace with the Taliban,” says Mawlawi Shahzada Shahid, a member of parliament from Kunar and a member of the High Peace Council. “But talks with the Taliban are still very important and needed.”