Af-Pak: The Murree Gambit

Published: July 24, 2015 - 13:04 Updated: July 27, 2015 - 17:17

Shrinivasrao S Sohoni Kabul

Through the 18th and the 19th centuries, when the British Raj was establishing itself across South Asia, only very few practitioners of statecraft in the subcontinent could foil British negotiating skills,  political moves, and power play.

The astute Nana Phadnavis did so from Poona on behalf of the Maratha Empire; and, later, so did the great Maharaja Ranjit Singh on behalf of the Sikh Empire from its capital, Lahore.

Both succeeded however just in fending off the British and keeping them at bay.

The only one to outmaneuver the British completely in negotiations, was the intrepid Afghan Prince Wazir Akbar Khan, son of the Barakzai Durrani Pashtun Emir of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad Khan.

Made to leave Kabul in January 1842, the British Army’s retreat to Jalalabad culminated in annihilation, one man alone, assistant-surgeon William Brandon, being spared.

Wazir Akbar Khan’s silken diplomacy, was no flash in the pan.

It is an attribute of the Pashtuns, staunch as they are in friendship, and formidable adversaries in warfare.

Not without reason has Afghanistan survived as a nation though trapped in a vortex of toxic global power play, domestic strife, and violence.

Witness the recent confabulations reported between the Afghan Government and supposed-representatives of the Taliban which the Afghan Government induced the Pakistan Government to produce.

The timing of the discussion was of the essence.

First and foremost, it has helped President Ashraf Ghani when reeling under blame for making concessions to Pakistan without securing any benefits for Afghanistan.

The initiative has also won approbation for a principal backer and beneficiary of Ghani’s: the Pakistan Government, i.e. Pakistan’s military leadership, pressured behind-scenes by the US to deliver something tangible towards the peace process in Afghanistan.

The Murree meet has been applauded by the US and its European allies, China, and sundry other nations pursuing their corresponding strategic interests.

Considering that no official record of the discussions has been released yet, the scale of media reportage on the one day-and-night meeting on July 7-8 in Murree, Pakistan, speaks for itself.

High level leaks and background briefings have emerged  – advancing a detail here, a detail there, about who is supposed to have attended from the Taliban side, with what credentials, and as to what transpired.

If, at Pakistan’s instance, a representative of the notorious terrorist Haqqani Network also turned up, as claimed, it is certainly noteworthy, considering that just a fortnight ago, this terror syndicate had attacked the Afghan Parliament.

On the Afghan side it is significant that members nominated by Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, formed part of the Afghan delegation, and appear to be satisfied with the talks.

As to the subject matter discussed, the best coverage appears not in the Pakistani or the Western news media, but in Afghanistan’s press and television services.

The Dari ‘Jamhorynews’ (Republic News) e.g. carries an extensive report based on an interview with Deputy Foreign Minister, Hekmat Khalil Karzai, - a confidante of President Ashraf Ghani, and a cousin of former President Hamid Karzai.

As leader of the Afghan delegation, he is reported to have stated forthrightly, at the outset, that “talks on peace are unsustainable without a ceasefire”.

Evidently the ensuing discussion included important topics germane to the peace process: Scope for suspension of “major attacks” by both sides; Release of prisoners by the Afghan Government; Delisting of names in the UN ‘black list’; Confidence Building Measures (CBM); Participation of the Taliban in a “United National Government”; Amendment of the Afghan Constitution; Evacuation of foreign forces from Afghanistan as a condition for peace; Importance of sincerity during peace talks; and the possibility of further meetings after Ramadan to convert the round of meetings into a Peace Process.

Wide-ranging as the discussion may have been, there was no agreement concluded on anything whatsoever.

As the Pashtu saying goes, it was an instance of “Prolonged discussions, and then Adjournment!”

Meanwhile, as per a Reuter report, the Taliban’s ‘Voice of Jihad’ website put out an article denouncing the talks, stating: "When the dust settles, the much-hailed talks will be revealed as nothing more than Pakistan delivering a few individuals from the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) to speak in their personal capacity". The Reuter report adds that the article was later removed from the website; which is curious.

Pakistani commentators aver that the Taliban has splintered into rival groups. This is an old contention, and creates scope for Pakistan to dub some incidents of terrorism as the handiwork of non-Taliban gangs.

Experience of Taliban political skills, also suggests that such apparent disaggregation is, to an important extent, tactical.

There is the prospect now of more such pow-wows in even pleasanter locations than Murree, perchance in China, and in Western Europe.

On whether the current Violent Extremism subsides or is arrested in Afghanistan, depends the efficacy of the peace process.

At Murree, representatives certified by Pakistan as being of the Taliban, promised nothing of the kind.

The Murree gambit appears to have been played chiefly to secure for President Ashraf Ghani some sorely-needed respite and acceptance - as a proponent of intimate Pakistan-Afghanistan collaboration.

The writer is  Senior Adviser, Office of Administrative Affairs & Council of Ministers Secretariat, Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (2006-2014)