An Agenda for Afghan Peace Talks

I first met the Hazara leader, Mohammad Mohaqiq, in 1997 while serving in Tashkent. He sent word through an intermediary seeking a meeting. Mohaqiq journeyed across the Amu Darya and came over to the ambassador’s residence in Tashkent and we spent an evening over a meal talking for several hours and getting to know each other.

Mohaqiq made great impression on me as a Mujahideen commander in comparison with other jihadi leaders I had met—Ahmed Shah Massoud, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Sibghatullah Mujaddidi, Rasul Sayyaf, and so on. What distinguished Mohaqiq was the intense commitment to his people.

Karim Khalili, currently the Vice-President in Kabul, is better known as the top Hazara leader and he is a suave politician. Mohaqiq, on the contrary, is an uncut diamond. Khalili struck me as cosmopolitan, whereas Mohaqiq was unalloyed working class. Khalili kept himself aloof in Bamyan, whereas Mohaqiq lived dangerously as a street fighter in the Hazara Shi’ite ghettos of the teeming city of Mazar-i-Sharif on the Amu Darya, rubbishing shoulders with Rashid Dostum. Mohaqiq barely escaped minutes before his Taliban pursuers closed in on him in October 1998 during the horrrendous bloodbath in Mazar-i-Sharif. Or else, his fate wouldn’t have been different from that of Abdul Ali Mazari, the revered Hazara leader who was deceived by a Taliban invitation for peace talks near Kabul in 1995, ambushed and captured and whose mutilated body was subsequently thrown down from a Pakistani helicopter—or from that of President Najibullah, who was tortured and hung from a lamp-post in Kabul by the Taliban with his testacles stuffed into his mouth.

Therefore, when Mohaqiq speaks to Reuters, it merits attention. No one knows the true colours of the Taliban better than he would. And no one has higher stakes than him in the forthcoming peace talks with the Taliban. Thousands of his followers were killed by the Taliban in anti-Shi’ite pogroms.

Yet, he has been excluded by the United States and President Hamid Karzai from the peace talks. Mohaqiq is repeatedly warning that the Taliban are steadfast in their agenda to capture power in Afghanistan and have no intentions of sharing power with other groups. He forcefully reiterates in the interview with Reuters his opposition to the peace talks with the Taliban within the current format. Mohaqiq’s views are corroborated by an improbable American—former US Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth. In an article in the Foreign Policy magazine, Inderfurth exposes the flawed assumptions behind the US diplomats’ hush-hush talks in Qatar. Inderfurth held nothing less than 20 meetings with the Taliban during the 1997-2001 period and came to the following startling conclusion: “On a scale of one to ten on good faith negotiations, the Taliban proved to be a zero.”

SO, what is the way forward? To my mind, three things are important. One, there is no question that the Taliban need to be accommodated in Afghan politics as they are a legitimate force representing a substantial segment of Pashtun opinion. The peace talks are also the best means of ending the war which is at a stalemate and cannot be ‘won’.

Two, equally, non-Pashtun groups should also be included as participants in the peace talks. The presumption that Karzai represents all non-Taliban segments of opinion is not realistic. Simply put, Karzai lacks legitimacy. His capacity to deliver is also seriously suspect, given his appalling track record. Three, peace talks can be on one track but on a parallel track, there is also the pressing need to revamp the Afghan political system so as to broad-base it and make it truly democratic so as to provide the durable under-pinning of a settlement.

This last point needs careful attention. The present Afghan political system is far too centralised for such a fragmented country. It was largely conceived by the then US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and American constitutional experts with scant awareness of the Afghan character or flow of history, and it was hastily drawn up against the backdrop of the power vacuum in Kabul following the US invasion.

Of course, the US made a grave mistake in keeping King Zahir Shah out of power in the post-Taliban period. Washington’s estimation was that a centralised political system with an American puppet as the President would go a long way to make Afghanistan a vassal state. Of course, things didn’t work exactly that way and Washington got disillusioned with its hand-picked puppet as time passed. Jed Ober’s article, ‘King Karzai’, neatly sums up the grotesqueness of the present power structure in Kabul.

Unsurprisingly, Karzai opposes tooth and nail any dilution of his power to rule arbitrarily and to preside over a corrupt patronage system. He is obsessed with his own political future in any post-2014 scenario. He is afraid of becoming a road-kill and is determined to be a spoiler in any peace talks that doesn’t perpetuate his presidency. He prefers to use the non-Pashtun groups to bargain advantageous terms for himself rather than allow authentic leaders like Mohaqiq or Ahmed Wali Massoud or Rashid Dostum to speak for themselves at the peace talks. Karzai is exploiting the US-Pakistani tensions to his advantage.

In sum, reform of Afghanistan’s political system is integral to any durable settlement. There is much to be said in favour of the initiative taken by US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. A parliamentary system based on proportional representation provides the check and balance preventing an outright Taliban takeover.

But the hitch seems to be that the team put together by the late Richard Holbrooke comprises seasoned ‘Afghan hands’ who have come out of the woodwork of the Afghan jihad of the 1980s and are still wedded to the Cold-War mindset. They feel uncomfortable with non-Pashtun groups whom they see as proxies of Russia and Iran. They would rather flesh out a peace deal with Pakistan’s cooperation and keep things strictly under wraps that way.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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