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Doha round

A fortnightly column on the high politics of the Af-Pak region,the fulcrum of global power play in India’s neighbourhood

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: April 4, 2013 12:10 am

Doha round

Doha,the capital of the Persian Gulf emirate Qatar,which has lent its name to the world trade talks,has also become the theatre for international diplomacy on Afghanistan. Punching way above its weight,Qatar has inserted itself into the Great Game over the last two years by offering an address to the Taliban.

For the last two years,a handful of the Taliban leaders and their families have taken up residence in Doha and conducted negotiations,stalled for now,with the United States and other Western countries. Last week,it received Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.

In the 1990s,only two countries other than Pakistan recognised the Taliban government in Kabul — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This time it is Qatar that has taken the lead in the name of promoting the Afghan peace process. Karzai has been deeply suspicious of Doha’s attempt at drawing the Taliban closer to the US and lending the movement an international personality. Karzai preferred mediation by Saudi Arabia or Turkey,rather than Qatar.

Karzai was angry that Qatar was trying to promote reconciliation between the Taliban and the West behind Kabul’s back. To be sure,Karzai is all for a negotiated peace settlement with the Taliban. His problem is with the terms of engagement. Karzai rightly insists that the negotiations with the Taliban must be led by Kabul. Independent international negotiations with the Taliban,he rightly argues,will undermine the legitimacy of the elected government in Kabul.

The Taliban dismisses Karzai as a puppet of America,refuses to engage with him and insists on direct negotiations with the US. Karzai’s visit to Doha against this background suggested possible movement in the negative dynamic between Kabul and Quetta,where the Taliban leaders have taken shelter. The emir of Qatar,Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani,met Karzai and sought to dispel some of Kabul’s concerns. But the Taliban has remained inflexible. Its spokesman claimed that no Taliban leaders met Karzai in Doha.

Brief Romance

If hopes are receding for a direct dialogue between the Taliban and Kabul,a new chill has descended on the ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the last few days. The surprising warmth in the last few months between Kabul and Rawalpindi has turned out to be short-lived.

Positive noises about peace from Rawalpindi were followed by the release of a few Taliban leaders. There was much approbation in Washington and London for the seeming positive change in the thinking of the Pakistan army GHQ in Rawalpindi. Trying to build on the positive momentum,the British Prime Minister David Cameron hosted Karzai and the Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari at his country home Chequers outside London in February.

With senior military and intelligence officials from both sides of the Durand Line present at the talks in Chequers,London talked up the prospects for a breakthrough in the Pak-Afghan track of the peace process. What we have,instead,barely a few weeks later,is a near breakdown. The Af-Pak romance,so fondly promoted by Anglo-American policymakers,has turned out to be unsustainable. And the logic of the irreconcilable contradiction between the interests of Kabul and Rawalpindi appears to be asserting itself.

Reality Check

Last week,the spokesman of the Afghan Foreign Office,Janan Mosazai,accused Pakistan of “changing the goalposts” of the peace process and putting unacceptable “preconditions” for Rawalpindi’s support for reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban. According to Mosazai,these included severing Kabul’s ties with India,sending Afghan army officers for military training in Pakistan and the immediate signing of a strategic partnership agreement.

Pakistani officials deny making any demands on Kabul and insist that Karzai is increasingly an obstacle to the Afghan peace process. They also accuse Kabul of sheltering a section of the militants belonging to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that fights the Pakistani state.

Afghan officials say Pakistan has held back from sending a delegation of clerics to Kabul that were to condemn suicide bombing and prevented some Taliban leaders from flying to Doha for possible talks with Kabul.

Insofar as the recent hype about Rawalpindi’s interest in the Afghan peace process is concerned,Mosazai said,“when optimism was prevailing about Pakistani attitudes,our human intelligence suggested that — on the ground — this optimism was not well-founded,and unfortunately we were proved right”.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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