ISLAMABAD: The Centre for Afghanistan, Middle East & Africa (CAMEA) at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) had a Panel Discussion on ‘Conversations on the Afghan Peace Process: Qatar’s Role in Afghanistan’ which is the second in a series of conversations CAMEA will be having on Afghanistan – under its Conversations on the Afghan Peace Process series.
The distinguished speakers included: Dr. Majed al- Ansari, President of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies (QIASS), Dr Marwan Qabalan, Director of Policy Analysis at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, Qatar, Dr Omar Sadr, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) and Ambassador Sarfraz Khanzada, Former Ambassador of Pakistan to Qatar. Ambassador Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Director General ISSI and Ambassador Khalid Mahmood, Chairman BOG, ISSI, also took part in the discussion.
During her opening remarks, Ms Amina Khan, Director CAMEA, said that perplexed by instability in Afghanistan, regional actors have come to the forefront to play a more proactive role, and one such country is Qatar, which has played a substantive role in Afghanistan. Qatar has risen to the role of a mediator between the Taliban and Kabul as well as the US- and Taliban as early as 2011. In 2013, Qatar’s efforts resulted in the opening up a political office for the Taliban in Doha to pursue peace talks with the Afghan government. However, hopes for a negotiated settlement was short-lived due to reservations from the Karzai government, as a result the talks were called off. Even though the US and Qatar made several subsequent attempts to salvage peace talks, efforts failed to deliver until more recently, with the initiation of the Doha talks in July 2018. After 18 months of extensive and rather exhausting negotiations, including a brief collapse of the process in September 2019, a breakthrough was finally achieved with the signing of the US-Taliban peace agreement in Doha on February 29, 2020 Although the deal was signed over a year ago, still a number of challenges stand in the way of a negotiated settlement between Kabul and the Taliban. She concluded by saying that while Qatar, like Pakistan, is committed to the ongoing process, at the end of the day peace can only be achieved through a workable compromise between the Afghan government and the Taliban – which at this stage appears to be a tall order.
Ambassador Aizaz said that Qatar played a pivotal role in mediation between the Afghan government and the Taliban. He hoped that all parties would recognise the significance of a negotiated settlement and the decades long conflict would reach its conclusion. At the end of the day peace can only be achieved through a workable settlement between the principal parties, he said.
Dr. Majed al-Ansari said that Qatar’s mediation efforts can be viewed as building a national ground for the country since 1995 as well as a survival strategy which would showcase it as an important partner worthy of support. He said he was hopeful of a settlement soon given the Taliban are now open to talking, something which they had not been previously. However, at the moment there is conflict within both the Taliban and the Afghan Government. The main challenge Qatar will face is to make the peace process an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process. Moreover, Taliban’s military advance is another challenge for all stakeholders. Referring to the intra-dialogues in 2019, he said that such dialogues which are not a direct part of the process need to be there to give impetus to the overall process. Academics, civil society and other Afghans need to come up with the solution to the Afghan conflict. There needs to be a general consensus of the outcome of the mediation. Moreover, Afghanistan should not be used as a base for operations against any state in the world and specifically ISIS must not be given any space. In this regard, cooperation between regional countries is the key solution to prevent Afghan soil from being used against any country.
Dr. Marwan Qabalan said that Qatar has established trust with both the Taliban and the US which is why it is in a unique position to facilitate the peace process. Qatar’s involvement in Afghan peace process is not something new. One of the motives behind the mediation includes establishing itself as a facilitator in different regional conflicts and thus branding itself as a peacemaker in a very unstable part of the world. Moreover, Qatar would like to distinguish itself as a country which has its own independent foreign policy-something which it has been trying for the past 25 years. Challenges which Qatar faces in its mediation efforts include the very complicated situation concerning the different factions in Afghanistan, the involvement of so many regional players all trying to fill the security vacuum and the desire of some countries for Qatar’s mediation efforts to fail. He noted that the balance of power on ground might have the actual say because as a mediator Qatar does not have a leverage over Taliban or the Afghan government to reach a power sharing agreement. Uncertainty is the name of the game in the coming weeks in Afghanistan.
Dr. Omar Sadr said that Afghanistan’s conflict is quite complicated. There are divisions in the existing political structure of the Afghan government and its allies. He highlighted how the Taliban want to establish a ‘Sharia’ driven government in Afghanistan, but many stakeholders in Afghanistan are confused about the system and say that it does not have any framework. He was of the belief that the Taliban have not changed themselves nor are they pragmatic, but remain violent. He added that the Taliban are not tired of war and will continue to fight because ‘shahada’ is their ultimate goal. Afghanistan is a diverse country and there is a significant part of the population in Afghanistan which is in favor of elections. With regards to the question of establishment of a sustainable political state, he said that the rule of a single ethnic group is unacceptable. There needs to be an accountable and inclusive government. The Americans want the future Afghan government to be responsible towards human rights, accountable in terms of finance, sovereign in terms constitutionality and geographically, and independent in terms of its foreign policy. Only a democratic government can deliver these futuristic elements. All depends on how scenarios will evolve, he said.
Ambassador Sarfraz Khanzada said that Qatar mediated in bringing the US and Taliban to a peace deal. Therefore, it has a very moderate and important role to play in the Afghanistan after the withdrawal of forces and outlined factors which determine the foreign policy of Qatar are its wealth, primarily its huge LNG resources, its media network Al Jazeera which gives Qatar its popularity, Qatar Airways which have made it a global hub and its geographical position in the Gulf which makes it seen as a viable neutral partner. Taliban do not trust the electoral process in Afghanistan nor do they have the same trust in Qatar relative to the level of trust they had prior to the GCC blockade of Qatar. He said that at the moment, the balance of power in Afghanistan has shifted to the Taliban. He was optimistic that the Taliban have changed and are serious towards negotiations.
Ambassador Khalid Mahmood said that Qatar has a number of success stories about successful negotiations through mediation and its efforts have proved fruitful in Afghanistan as well. He said that the choice of Qatar was the right one. It has all the credentials of a good mediator and it did achieve some success. It was due to its mediatory efforts that the agreement between US and Taliban became possible in 2020. There is no other option but to persevere in this course and try to find a lasting settlement in Afghanistan which would not only be in the best interest of Afghanistan but all the regional countries as well, he said.