Pakistani academician and former diplomat Dr Maleeha Lodhi believes that that the Doha process offers the best hope for the Afghan peace efforts.

“I think if there is any interest left in the international community – and I believe there is – to try to see how much progress can be made ahead of December 2014 – for a peace process – then frankly, the only game in town is the Doha Process.”

This comment was made to  Gulf Times by Dr Lodhi, in response to a question about the possible resumption of peace talks between the Afghan government, the US and the Taliban, in Doha.

Lodhi twice served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US (1993–1996, 1999–2002) and as high commissioner to the UK (2003–2008). She was one of the keynote speakers at a South Asia and Middle East Forum (SAMEF) conference on Afghanistan held in a committee room at the House of Commons, London, on Thursday.

The panel, chaired by SAMEF chairman Khalid Nadeem, included Dr Mohamed Daud Yaar, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Hamed Gailani, former deputy speaker of the Afghan Parliament, British MPs and US specialists and an audience that included diplomats, military and academics.

In an interview with  Gulf Times on the sidelines of the conference,  Lodhi elaborated on why she is hopeful the talks will resume in Doha.

“The Taliban leaders, who went to Doha, (have been) obviously authorised by their Shura. Some of their leaders have reiterated their willingness to reopen talks with the Americans in the two-step process that was envisaged for Doha. Pakistan has been urging the US not to abandon Doha in the absence of any other option – and there is no other option.”

The two-step process,  Lodhi explained, envisaged that the Taliban leaders would first meet to talk about issues such as prisoner exchange and other issues directly related to the Taliban and the US.

This would be followed by efforts to persuade the Taliban leadership to speak to members of the High Peace Council, perhaps initially as individuals rather than official representatives, in an effort to find a way to overcome the Taliban’s resistance to talking to any representatives from Kabul.

She pointed out that “ultimately, the talks can move to Afghanistan – but the only game that’s still out there right now is Doha. I think there were possibilities in June, and these will have to be picked up again.”

She added that over the last year the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) being negotiated between the US and Afghanistan, had taken precedence over peace talks.

“One reason why Doha was never resuscitated and revived was because the Americans simply had their focus on the BSA and so did Karzai. I think, with that nearing completion, we will see another push. Whether that push is supported by President Karzai or not is anybody’s guess....”

She observed that one of the key reasons the process stalled was “because understandings that the Qataris were supposed to have received from the Taliban on the one hand, and from the Americans on the other, somehow didn’t get translated into the smooth opening of the office which everyone had envisaged.”

The critical question, she observed, related to the timing of a resumption of talks in Doha. “Will it have to wait for the post-Karzai political phase in Afghanistan or can it be done earlier? I think that’s an open question,” she concluded.

Afghanistan ambassador Yaar, when asked about the role of Doha, took a somewhat different approach. He believes that the peace talks with the Taliban that were supposed to begin in Doha, and are currently suspended, will resume at some point, but most likely in another country.

His government, he stated, would prefer the talks to take place in Afghanistan, but if that is not possible, Saudi Arabia or Turkey, he suggested, might act as host.

Ambassador Yaar added that an issue that needed to be resolved related to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban’s second-in-command, who has been in the custody of the Pakistan government for two years.

“The Pakistani government is saying they have released him, or they will release him. It would be ideal for the negotiations for him to come to Afghanistan. We can give him protection and he can bring his people and sit around the table. But if he doesn’t want to do that he might go to Saudi Arabia or to Turkey,” Yaar said

However, he added, the venue was not the real issue, but rather the conditions in place for the talks. “My government is flexible provided that sufficient guarantees and provisions are in place for the modalities of how the office will be opened, what its functions will be, and how it will operate,” he said.

He noted: “Last time they (the Taliban) tried to create a second government in exile and that was unacceptable to Afghanistan as we cannot allow two governments – one in Kabul and one in exile.”

His government, he said, was prepared to talk to the Taliban in the context of the Taliban being an opposition. “The Taliban should sit around the table as an opposition and should negotiate. But not as a government; they do not exist as a government,” he said.

He further observed: “The problem is that the Taliban do not seem to play by the recognised rules of politics. They were never recognised by the international community or the UN. Only three countries recognised them: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and they all eventually withdrew recognition.”

Asked whether he thought the Taliban would participate in the elections next year, he said. “No, I don’t think so. They won’t engage in the elections because they know they will lose.”

He observed: “The mentality of the Afghan people, including people in the villages has changed. They don’t want the kind of restrictive and fundamentalist ideas and ideology that they represent.”

With reference to the constitution of Afghanistan, he said: “The values enshrined in the constitution cannot be compromised at all. Some of the Taliban’s ideas, such as not allowing women to go to school or to work, go against the constitution. It’s a battle of institutions and values. They have their own ideas about institutions and values and we have the moderate view.”

Of the Afghan people, he said: “The people of Afghanistan in general are a very tolerant people. I am old enough to remember; we were true Muslims – we never encouraged suicide bombings or killing other people for their different beliefs. Tolerance is the major aspect of Islamic belief and the violence is foreign to the way of life in Afghanistan.”

Asked for his views on the prospect of the Taliban engaging in the election process next year, Hamad Gailani said: “I don’t think they will enter into politics through the mechanism which we are going to have for these elections this time. I don’t think they are prepared for that. Why they are not prepared to be part of the political mainstream is because they have repeatedly stated that they do not recognise Kabul as a legitimate body. But in a mechanism of inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue I don’t think they have a problem.”

He pointed to last year’s talks in Paris (which included representatives of the Afghan Taliban, Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami, members of Afghanistan’s parliament, civil society, political groups that were earlier part of the Northern Alliance and figures who have been associated with the government) as evidence of their willingness to engage. “They proved that in Paris; that was a clear-cut indication that they are ready to speak with the Afghans on equal terms,” he said.

He conceded that the presence of Karzai was proving an obstacle to negotiations, but added:

“Hopefully, after the elections there will be room for a re-opening of that subject with them, and hopefully, whoever will be the president will have a broader concept of the situation.”

With regard to the office in Doha, he said: “I feel eventually it will re-start. The infrastructure for dialogue is the intra-Afghan mechanism.”

He said peace without the Taliban’s participation in the process would be difficult.

 “I want peace in my country and I cannot see peace without the Taliban playing a role. The time has come for the US to back us but they should let us do it the Afghan way – as the foreign formulas haven’t worked so far.”




Related Story