Tension and rift hurts peace prospects
Regional hostility and worsening security situation in Afghanistan cast a shadow on the sixth meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group in Muscat, the capital of Oman.
Representatives from the four member nations, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US, participated in the talks on Oct 16. Political commentators reckoned the meeting held after a year-long standstill in peace talks would be challenging.
From the outset the "atmosphere was vague" as the meeting was in the midst of heightened tensions between Islamabad and Kabul, and deepening distrust between the US and China.
All sides have been aware that trust is the foundation on which peace talks in Afghanistan can rest. Yet, the Quadrilateral Group were forced to hold a meeting in Oman when past meetings were held either in Islamabad or Kabul – a fact that was not lost on political watchers and analysts.
As members of the group, Pakistan and Afghanistan could not agree on a venue in either country.
Barak Obama pushed forward the initiative following his decision to pull out US troops but he did not factor in often tense bilateral relations between Islamabad and Kabul. Both sides were trying to reap the benefits of the US withdrawal. This created "mistrust", which the Quadrilateral Group has not been able to shed.
Other political experts see failure in that the Taliban have stayed away even in the sixth round of talks. Atefa Haqmal, civil society activist believes, "Since the beginning the meetings have not made any headway because of the non-presence of the Taliban." The Islamic fighters have maintained they would not sit for talks until the "last foreign soldier leaves Afghanistan".
Meanwhile, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have only worsened. President Ashraf Ghani steered away from taking Pakistan's help after initially warming up to the country. In negotiations with the Hezb Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar he pointedly refused to seek Islamabad's help.
As the US under President Donald Trump rolled out a new strategy for Afghanistan the strains between the two neighbours have only deepened. There is no doubt that only US pressure on Pakistan convinced Islamabad to participate in the Quadrilateral Group meeting in Muscat.
Trump has decided to increase the number of boots on the ground in Afghanistan. His reasoning is that keeping the troops is essential to ensure terrorist groups do not regroup and step into the vacuum that would necessarily be created by the withdrawal of forces.
What may have riled Pakistan is that the new US strategy turns to rival India for assistance. Khesraw Shkeba, political expert said before the sixth group meeting, "In the session in Oman, Kabul's goal would be to try to get the same place as Pakistan, and get the US to pressure Islamabad to let Afghanistan take the benefit of aid from India."
Shekeb Mustaghni, the spokesperson in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has pointed to the same while speaking at a press conference in Kabul. All sides must get Pakistan to honestly keep the promises made in the earlier five meetings of the Quadrilateral Group, he said.
Meanwhile, China is keen on stability in Afghanistan to ensure the success of its own interests like the One Belt, One Road development.
China has always pushed its economic rather than political interests.
Islamabad's pique over the new US strategy, which openly includes India, could be the reason for the wave of deadly attacks in Paktia and Ghazni recently, according to Members of Parliament (MPs). The attacks show that the Taliban are still under the control of Pakistan, which still has power in Afghanistan.
Severity of war
MPs believe that the deadly attacks on the Paktia police headquarters and the district governor's office in Andar, Gazni province, that left 400 dead and injured were a response by Pakistan to show the importance of its stance in Muscat.
Shekeba Hashemi, MP, says , "The reason for the deadly Taliban attacks was that Pakistan felt provoke, mainly because of US support for India and keeping Islamabad away. In fact, Afghanistan is a victim of the competitions between India and Pakistan on the one hand and on the other hand the competition between Russia and the US." A number of MPs want to break relations with Taliban saying Afghanistan should not take part in a meeting in which Pakistan is participating. The MPs would like to codify foreign policy strategy, where an enemy or a friend would be identified.
Abdul Qayoom Sajadi, MP, requested the government to draft a plan to counter terrorism; talk peace and foreign relations with other countries. Monitoring a security strategy is the responsibility of the government, he added.
What can be hoped to be achieved by pressuring the Taliban to join the table for talks? Political experts think it would be pointless to expect results but what is clear is that the US is trying to retain influence in the region.