More Questions Than Answers at Intra-Afghan Meeting

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Dampening expectations, the two-day long intra-Afghan discussions held near Paris ended Friday with more questions than answers about the future of the peace and reconciliation process deemed critical for Afghanistan's stability and a successful transition process following the US and Nato military disengagement scheduled for 2014.

For the second time in a year, envoys from the Taliban leadership Council (also known as the Quetta Shura) came face to face with two dozen representatives of the quasi-governmental High Peace Council (HPC), main political opposition groups, the parliament and civil society. This was the third such gathering, part of a track II initiative organized by the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) and backed by the French Government.

HPC envoys and a Taliban representative had indirect contacts in Kyoto, Japan, last June as part of a peace conference held at Doshisha University.

According to three participants from various groups present in Chantilly, who did not want to be named, the Taliban representatives attending the gathering at the off-limits Chateau de la Tour, were in an uncompromising mood, opposed to talks with government representatives and presented a hardened posture on key agenda issues.

They did agree, nonetheless, to consult with their leadership about attendance in future meetings. They also agreed for the first time to form a commission to engage non-governmental groups in intra-Afghan dialogue. The modalities for such a mechanism are not yet known, but may be an irritant for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has gone the extra mile to seek rapprochement with his armed opposition.

Although not billed as negotiations and not intended to initiate peace talks, many observers expected the Paris event to be an ice-breaker and to create some momentum for more substantive talks between Karzai's government and the mainstream Taliban belonging to the Quetta Shura.

However, according to participants at the meeting, Taliban representatives, Shahabudin Delawar and Naeem Wardak, who are reported to have arrived via Qatar, had instructions to reject any talk with Kabul envoys, repeating their previous demand that all foreign troops would need to leave Afghanistan before they could envisage peace talks with the government.

An unnamed participant said "the Taliban were here to say what their position was... but they would not talk to the government."

When opposition political groups raised the issue of the Constitution and the possibility of future amendments to accommodate all sides, the Taliban were non-committal, and questioning the legitimacy of the constitutional order. Taliban leaders consider Sharia (Islamic jurisprudence) as interpreted by their scholars, as the only source of moral code and law in Islam. Afghan analysts believe that the Taliban movement is torn on the issue of political inclusivity.

The organizers had presented an agenda for discussion on Thursday that was broad and futuristic. Questions were raised about political balance in the country in 2020, type of sovereignty and parameters for peace and security in Afghanistan.

But each side also had its own viewpoint and list of recommendations. At least three political opposition parties had met beforehand in Kabul to coordinate and try to offer a common stance. A key demand was to study the possibility of moving the country toward a parliamentary system, with less concentration of power in the hands of the president.

Other issues raised at the meeting covered human and gender rights, and amnesty from prosecution, which solicited contradictory stances.

In unanimity, the Taliban were asked to lay down their arms, stop the violence, break with terrorist groups, leave their Pakistani sanctuaries, enter the Afghan political process and participate in the 2014 and 2015 elections.

Recent news analyses point to a shift in Pakistani attitudes, warmer ties between Islamabad and Washington, rifts developing among Taliban leaders and willingness on the part of the Afghan Government to further engage Pakistan and offer concessions to the Taliban. But the rigidity displayed in Chantilly by the Taliban envoys further complicates the end-game scenarios at play, and raises questions about whether this is part of tactics or strategy? Is it a cautionary measure? Is it reflective of all Taliban factions and to what extent does it take into account the sensitivity factors put on display by both Kabul and Islamabad in precious reconciliation bids?

While some delegates may leave the French Chateau believing that the meeting offered a rare occasion to express viewpoints and engage in a productive exchange, offering some potential for continued dialogue, others might be less optimistic, wondering whether any new insights were gained, and whether the road to peace is shorter and less perilous as the 2014 transition approaches.

Omar Samad is a Senior Afghanistan Expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington DC, and the former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada. The views expressed here are his own.

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