Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Afghan Reconciliation: At Brussels, Kerry Sprouts Consensus


Monish Gulati

Introduction

In a bid to progress the Afghan reconciliation process, which has degenerated into a slanging match between Pakistan and Afghanistan, US Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a meeting between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani Army Chief General Kayani in Brussels on 24 April 2013. The difficult relationship between Karzai and Kayani amongst other issues has been dragging down efforts to bring stability and peace in Afghanistan before the forthcoming elections. The three-way talks were held the day after NATO foreign ministers arrived to discuss, besides other issues the NATO/ISAF’s role in Afghanistan post-2014. The Kerry-Karzai-Kayani meeting was part of a series of ongoing discussions between the representatives of the three countries, which picked up pace after the confirmation proceedings of President Obama’s new team were completed.

Background

The US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel launched concerted efforts to address the Af-Pak issues by making Kabul their first stop. Chuck Hagel's two-day (09-10 March) visit to Afghanistan was his first overseas trip as the Defense Secretary and there were expectations that the visit would shore up the fragile relations with Afghanistan. Earlier in the week, on 04 March, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen had visited Kabul with the message, "Let there be no doubt: our commitment is certain, to the end of transition and beyond it, NATO will stand by you".

The Secretary of State Kerry met Gen Kayani in Amman on the night of 24 March and asked for his help with President Karzai to further the reconciliation process in Afghanistan. Kerry had decided to skip Islamabad because of upcoming Pakistani elections and instead met Gen Kayani in the Jordanian capital. Then on 25 March, Kerry headed to Kabul on an unannounced trip with an agenda that included discussions on reconciliation and transition and presence of US troops in Afghanistan after 2014.1 Kerry's visit to Kabul was his first as Secretary of State, and coincided with the handover of the U.S. detention facility at Bagram to Afghan control, resolving a major irritant in the relations between the two countries. The US also agreed to the withdrawal of its special-operations teams from Wardak province, another Karzai demand.2
ISAF’s commander in Afghanistan, General Joseph F Dunford met with Gen Kayani on 01 April 2013, as part of the continuing tri-partite commission efforts to strengthen military-to-military cooperation and regional stability. This was General Dunford’s first visit to Pakistan as ISAF Commander.3 Later in the month Dunford told members of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee that there was little evidence to suggest that Pakistan was intentionally sabotaging the Afghan peace process. He also told the US Senate that Karzai's accusations against Pakistan highlighted "the very deep mistrust that currently exists and has historically existed between Pakistan and Afghanistan." Afghanistan Defence Ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi on 18 April termed Gen. Dunford remarks as ‘wrong’.4

Despite the fact that US officials over a period of last couple of months had been interacting with Afghan and Pakistani leaders to iron out differences and take the reconciliation process forward, just days prior to the Brussels trilateral, bilateral discussions were held to lay more groundwork. On 21 April, senior civil and military officials from Pakistan and the US held talks in Islamabad to discuss measures to reach out to the Afghan Taliban. The talks were attended by acting US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, David Pearce and General Kayani.5 Pearce was assisted by Special Assistant to US President, Lt Gen (retd) Douglas Lute; Principal Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Dr Peter Lavoy and Ambassador Richard Olson.6 The issue of release of Taliban detainees and Qatar process was also discussed. The two countries agreed to stand by the outcome of the London Trilateral with regards to prior coordination before future release of Taliban detainees being currently held by Pakistan.

However, a day later on 22 April, as Karzai travelled to Brussels to attend the trilateral talks, his office issued a statement that Afghan patience was running out with Pakistan as it had not taken meaningful measures for addressing Afghan concerns. Afghanistan insisted Pakistan continues to support the insurgents to counter the Indian influence in the country. Pakistan strongly rejected the charge in a statement posted on its Brussels embassy website stating that it had "consistently endeavoured to facilitate an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.7

NATO Foreign Ministers' Meeting

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen met the Afghan President in Brussels on 23 April, a day prior to the trilateral talks during the NATO Foreign Ministers' meeting. He told the Afghan President that the Afghan government must follow up on a series of planned reforms to ensure that Western support continues beyond 2014. He added that “Their continued efforts to meet their commitments will pave the way for our continued support”. Rasmussen spelt out the commitments which included fighting corruption, holding credible elections next year and respecting Human Rights, including women's rights.

NATO Secretary-General later told reporters that “If we are to ensure long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan we also need a positive engagement of Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Pakistan”. At the press meet the Afghan President thanked the NATO for training and equipping his forces, and expressed confidence that they will be ready to take full security responsibility when most of the foreign troops depart.

US Secretary of State John Kerry joined his NATO counterparts in Brussels on 23 April for discussions on joint operations in Afghanistan and drawdown plans by the end of 2014. He reaffirmed NATO’s commitment beyond 2014 to training and advisory mission whose parameters are being negotiated between the Afghan and U.S. governments. 8

Brussels Trilateral

On 24 April US Secretary of State John Kerry hosted talks between the Afghan President and senior Pakistani officials. The discussions were held at the official residence of the United States ambassador to NATO. Karzai was accompanied at the meeting by Afghanistan’s Minister of Defence and Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul. General Kayani was joined by Jalil Abbas Jilani, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary. Gen Joseph Dunford, also attended the talks along with Douglas Lute and David Pearce. 9

After about three and a half hours of talks in Brussels, Kerry said he had made progress with Karzai and Kayani. But all sides still had "some very specific homework to do". He declined to give specific details so as not "to raise expectations or make any kind of promises that cannot be delivered”. The three parties would "continue a very specific dialogue on both the political track as well as the security track.

Kerry indicated that any results of the Brussels talks would have to be more tangible measured not in rhetoric but in improving relations as NATO winds down its Afghanistan mission. Kerry said "We have all agreed that results are what will tell the story, not statements at a press conference." Significantly neither Karzai nor the Pakistan officials made any comment at the end of the meeting.

Assessment

Kerry, who has interacted with senior Afghan and Pakistani leaders for years as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, came with the hope that the trilateral talks would break the impasse. Addressing U.S. diplomats a day prior to the trilateral meet in Brussels, Kerry said his goal for the talks was to advance the peace process "in the simplest, most cooperative, most cogent way so that we wind up with both Pakistan's and Afghanistan's interests being satisfied but most importantly with a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, which is worth the expenditure and the treasure and effort of these last years."10

The first positive outcome of the trilateral appears that Kerry has prevailed on Karzai and Kayani to use the media in a constructive manner. The rhetoric from either side has not only impeded progress, it has eroded the confidence and optimism of the Afghans regarding the situation post 2014. It has made consensus building difficult and provided the Taliban with a psychological edge on the situation. Significantly neither Karzai nor Kayani spoke to the press in Brussels nor made any negative comments on return.

Besides some movement on the negotiations with Taliban in Qatar, it is likely that the reconciliation process may see the involvement of other Afghan political groups and in what Pakistan terms as Track-II dialogue. Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan Umer Daudzai had earlier this month opposed the Track-II dialogue stating that that peace should be between the state of Afghanistan and any faction involved in fighting, “We are opposed to any move degrading the state of Afghanistan”.11

On the other hand it appears that Pakistan’s objective is to make the current Karzai regime just as another faction in the fight for power in Afghanistan rather than a fully legitimate government installed through a democratic process whatever may be the shortcomings of this nascent democracy. Pakistan has also been contacting the erstwhile Northern Alliance elements for achieving its strategic objectives.

However, there could be some constructive steps on the Afghan-Pak border issue which has lately restricted access to Afghans citing security preparations for the forthcoming elections in Pakistan and seen tensions rise due to construction of a gate by Pakistan. Rasmussen had remarked that the porous Afghan-Pakistan border hurts all the efforts to improve security in the region, and also hurts both countries' common interest in fighting extremists.12

Another possible outcome of the trilateral could be the early appointment of a new US Special Envoy for Af-Pak, to address some of these contentious issues in a sustained manner.13

What India would note, notwithstanding the general elections in Pakistan, is the fact that the Pakistani delegation was headed by Gen Kayani. It is an indication of the importance US attaches to the Pakistani military on security and policy matters especially when it comes to Afghanistan and reconciliation with the Taliban. It also indicates how US is running out of options (and time) in Afghanistan and is virtually dependent on Pakistan to ensure a safe pull out. India would also watch for progress on the Afghan-Pak SPA, a key Pakistani precondition, and the level of military cooperation it results in.

Further, all indications are that the reconciliation talks, far from being an Afghan owned and Afghan led process are increasingly becoming a Pakistan owned and Pakistan led process duly encouraged by the US. The unveiling of Afghan High Peace Council Peace Process Road Map to 2015 in November, 2012 followed by Chantilly talks in France and pro-Kayani proclivities of Kerry point towards the US making Pakistan and that too Pakistani military as main arbitrators in the unfolding drama in Afghanistan. Americans in their haste and desperation to leave Afghanistan are pandering to Pakistan’s strategic designs. It is also well known that the tactic of arrest and release of Taliban leaders detained in Pakistan is employed to suit Pakistani discourse on reconciliation and has been adopted several times earlier to gain concessions from the US and others.

Endnotes
  1. Baqir Sajjad Syed. ‘Gen Kayani, Kerry discuss Afghan reconciliation’, Dawn, March 26, 2013.
    http://dawn.com/2013/03/26/gen-kayani-kerry-discuss-afghan-reconciliation/
  2. Nathan Hodge and Jay Solomon. ‘Kerry Visits Kabul to Bolster Alliance’, WSJ , March 25, 2013.
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142412788732478950457838208127904847...
  3. ‘Isaf Commander meets Gen Kayani’, Dawn, April 01, 2013.
    http://dawn.com/2013/04/01/isaf-commander-gen-dunford-meets-with-kayani/
  4. ‘Azimi disputes Gen. Dunford’s remarks on Pakistan’, Afghanistan Times, April 18, 2013.http://www.afghanistantimes.af/news_details.php?id=3113&&cid=1
  5. Kamran Yousaf. ‘Afghan peace process: Pakistan, US in a bid to break the deadlock’, The Express Tribune,
    April 22, 2013.
  6. Ibid.
  7. ‘US-Afghan-Pakistan talks make progress, more work to do: Kerry’, The News, April 24, 2013
  8. Karen DeYoung. ‘Kerry, in Brussels, reaffirms commitment to post-2014 training mission in Afghanistan’,
    The Washington Post, 24 April 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/russias-lavrov-says-west...
  9. ‘No breakthrough in Pak-Afghan talks’ , The Nation, April 25, 2013
  10. Elise Labott. ‘Kerry aims to soothe Afghan-Pakistan tensions’, CNN, April 24, 2013.http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/24/kerry-aims-to-soothe-afghan-pak...
  11. Ser1.
  12. Al Pessin. ‘NATO Tells Afghanistan to Meet its Commitments to Ensure Aid’, April 23, 2013
    http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2013/04/mil-130423-v...
  13. Ser1.

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