In conversation with Hekmat Khalil Karzai, Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister and leader of the government delegation at the peace talks with the Taliban, on the path to lasting peace.
Earlier this month, the Taliban said it would not participate in the international community-brokered peace talks with the Afghanistan government. The rejection derailed the timetable set by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) – Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US – for the Taliban to join the reconciliation talks by the first week of March.
The Wire spoke to the Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai at Pokhara on Friday (March 18), just before he left Nepal to return to Kabul. Karzai was in Nepal to represent Afghanistan at the SAARC ministerial meeting after Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani dropped out.
Karzai, who has led the Afghan government delegations at the peace dialogue, discussed the current status of the talks and the road ahead.
After the rejection by Taliban, what is the future of the reconciliation talks?
I think there are a couple of things to explore. First, we have started a process and it is important to get that the process going. We have the QCG with Pakistan, China and the US, and we can go to that group to asses our responsibilities and to see what we can do. As you may know, we have created a roadmap in the QCG. The roadmap tells us very clearly what to do if groups are not negotiating. We have responsibility to deal with those who are irreconcilable.
So, now we (the QCG) have to get together.
We had very good discussions yesterday (March 17) with Sartaj Aziz (foreign affairs advisor to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) and Aizaz Chaudhary, the foreign secretary. We are optimistic that after getting together, we will find certain avenues to proceed on.
Please spell out the roadmap.
It is a four-stage document that looks at the principles of the negotiation, pre-negotiation and implementation phases. It is a document that four countries have agreed on and most importantly, it assigns responsibility to each country on what they should be doing at each of the phases.
What are these responsibilities?
The document is an internal classified document, but at same time, the key objective of the roadmap is to establish face-to-face talks between the Afghan government and various different groups. So, that is the responsibility, and the various different groups have different interactions and activity that they need to undertake.
At the February 23 meeting of the QCG, a reduction in violence was delineated as a major aim of the talks. How far have you gone in achieving that aim?
Well, the objective of specifically reducing violence is something that will take place once we have face-to-face talks. As you are aware, that at this stage, we are just trying to have an engagement with the different groups and the Afghan government. Once there is face-to-face talks reducing the level of violence will be one of the key topics.
When will you hold the next round of QCG talks?
Yesterday we had discussion with the Pakistani colleagues. In the coming days, we will consult our Chinese and Pakistani friends, and once we have an answer from them, we will proceed.
There has been buzz that there may still may be talks (with the Taliban) by March-end.
It seems that there is possibility that by the end of March we can have certain discussions. But, it is still up to Pakistan and our other partners to put pressure on these different militant groups so that they can come and engage with us.
Which Taliban group is more amenable to come and join the talks?
To us, it is fine whoever comes in. We are not setting pre-conditions or saying that we will negotiate with this group and not negotiate with this one. We are absolutely fine with whoever comes in. We are not going to say that they have to accept the Constitution and break ties with the al-Qaeda. Once we negotiate, we will proceed from there.
Recently, Mullah Rasoul (who has challenged Akhtar Muhammad Mansour’s ascension as Taliban Emir) reportedly said that he will not come to talks, as long as Mansour is at the table. Is that an impediment?
Our main focus is on Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. Once we have those discussions, then we can start with several other groups. As you may know, yesterday, Hekmatyar elements came in and had discussions with the High Peace Council. I am not aware of the details, but once I go back, I will see what kind of developments have taken place and go from there.
Mullah Mansour’s last statement issued on Thursday seemed to be a message to his supporters to get ready for the Spring offensive.
I think these are internal issues between the different factions of the Taliban. Frankly, we are following these discussions, but our bigger objective at the end of the day is to reduce the level of violence and reach political settlement. We do not concern ourselves with the differences that exist between the political groups.
So, you don’t really care how they got where they are, as long as Pakistan gets them to the table.
Not just at the table, we want authorised representatives so that we can talk to them. At the end of the day, our objective is not just to sit down across the table from a particular group. Our objective is to reach a solution.
I am asking this, as last time the Taliban had claimed that they were deceived into joining the talks.
The Taliban are always going to make these statements. But, this time we have said that the people that we sit down have to be the authorised representatives.
Do you see any differences between the Qatar political office and the Mullah Mansour group?
We feel that the Mansour group and Qatar office is the authorised representative. And they are a legitimate group for negotiations.
What happens if nobody from the Taliban comes for the talks?
As I said, before, we go back to the roadmap. We put the pressure through our international partners.
And this includes military pressure?
It includes everything. The language that we have used is that if people do not negotiate, if they do not come to the table, they will be dealt with the necessary means.
What can India’s role be in these peace talks?
We have had discussions with senior government officials and we have tried to make sure that they are satisfied with the process.