WASHINGTON – The Afghan government is pursuing an ambitious new peace initiative in which Pakistan would replace the United States in arranging direct talks between the warring sides and the Taliban would be granted government posts that effectively could cede to them political control of their southern and eastern strongholds.
If implemented, the plan would diminish the role of the United States in the peace process but would still leave Washington with input on a number of critical issues, including the terms for initiating negotiations. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Great Britain also would be involved.
The plan envisions ending the war by 2015 through a cease-fire and negotiations in the second half of next year, most likely in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan would help select the leaders of the Taliban and other rebel groups who would take part in the negotiations with the Afghan government. The effort, the plan says, should be conducted “through one consistent and coherent channel,” a measure that would secure a role for Afghan President Hamid Karzai after the end of his term following April 2014 elections.
Another provision would give the insurgents a voice on “issues related … to the withdrawal” of the U.S.-led NATO force by the end of 2014.
The plan foresees the United States working with Kabul and Islamabad in determining which insurgent leaders would participate. The United States also would be critical to approving the removal of the insurgent negotiators from the U.N.’s list of terrorists.
Titled “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015,” the blueprint represents a decision by Karzai – in close coordination with Pakistan – to assume the lead in peace-making efforts following the collapse earlier this year of an Obama administration bid to persuade the Taliban to participate in direct talks with Kabul.
The new initiative comes amid persistent distrust between Karzai and the Obama administration and deep insecurity in Kabul over future U.S. support. Those concerns and the U.S. failure to arrange peace talks appear to have pushed Karzai closer to Pakistan, whose army and main intelligence service are widely believed to exercise significant influence over Taliban and other militant leaders based in Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan.
The plan also comes as the ongoing U.S. combat troop pullout and cuts in U.S. financial aid to Afghanistan are fueling fears in both countries that violence and instability could worsen, spurring them to take matters into their own hands.
The blueprint, a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy, officially is the work of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which is charged with overseeing government peace efforts. But it was drafted by Karzai and his inner circle over the past six months in coordination with Pakistan, according to a person familiar with the document who requested anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.
The plan was presented to Pakistan and the United States during visits last month by High Peace Council Chairman Salauddin Rabbani, who was named by Karzai to the post after Rabbani’s father, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated in May 2011.
The State Department declined to comment on the plan, refusing even to confirm its existence. However, a State Department official, who requested anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, was authorized to say that, “The United States continues to support an Afghan-led peace process and welcomes initiatives through which Afghans sit down with other Afghans in pursuit of that goal.”
The Afghan Embassy did not respond to a request to discuss the plan.
A major assumption is that all insurgent leaders and their fighters will participate even though the Taliban have consistently rejected negotiations with Karzai, whom they denounce as an American puppet. Moreover, the insurgency is far from being monolithic, and many leaders are known to distrust one another and Pakistan.
In an incident underscoring the hurdles, two Taliban factions claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack Thursday that wounded Asadullah Khalid, the chief of Afghanistan’s intelligence service. Karzai on Saturday alleged that the attack was planned in Pakistan, but he denied that the Taliban were responsible.
The new plan would preserve Afghanistan as a parliamentary democracy, denying the militants the Islamic rule for which they’ve spent years fighting.
It also appears to ignore warnings from politicians of the former Northern Alliance against giving the Taliban and their allies power that they hadn’t won in elections. The Northern Alliance, dominated by ethnic minorities, battled the Taliban, which is made up primarily of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group, until the 2001 U.S. invasion. Many former alliance members now head Karzai’s political opposition and hold key army, police and intelligence posts.
“Any Afghanistan reconciliation effort will have to address varied and complex ethnic concerns,” acknowledged a U.S. official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the issue.
Finally, the key role that the plan confers on Pakistan could inflame suspicion among many Afghans that Islamabad plans to exert influence in a post-war Afghanistan – especially to block a pro-India tilt – by placing former insurgents in Cabinet posts, ministries, provincial governorships and positions like police chiefs and district administrators.
“The northerners won’t buy this,” said Marvin Weinbaum, a Middle East Institute scholar who served as a State Department intelligence analyst on Afghanistan, referring to former Northern Alliance leaders. “So what you get then is the beginning of a civil war.”
In principles governing the new peace process, the plan reiterates Afghan and U.S. demands that the Taliban and other insurgents cut ties with al-Qaida and renounce violence.
But in a shift that could raise concerns among human rights and women’s groups, the plan changes what had been a demand that the insurgents “accept” the Afghan Constitution to one that they “respect” it.
“Any outcome of the peace process must respect the Afghan Constitution and must not jeopardize the rights and freedoms that the citizens of Afghanistan, both men and women, enjoy under the Constitution,” the plan says.