x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Only inclusive talks can lead to peace

There's not much point in refusing to talk to the other side in a dispute – a point all factions in Afghanistan should consider.

The future of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of international troops next year is hanging in the balance. And the political and military players in that war-torn nation have very little common ground. These include the government, which has limited authority in Kabul, let alone in the provinces; various tribal groups with specific interests; and Taliban insurgents, who ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

Many will be rankled by the inclusion of the Taliban in any post-2014 scenario, and President Hamid Karzai has previously ruled out talks with them. But the fact is that this grouping remains a force with considerable military strength and localised support, and they must have a seat at the table if negotiations are to succeed and a semblance of a state is to emerge.

On Saturday, Mr Karzai arrived in Qatar for a two-day visit - his first since plans for a Taliban office in Doha were announced two years ago. While there was no contact between Mr Karzai and the senior Taliban officials already in Doha, it must be assumed that the door for discussions between the two parties has been left ajar. Qatar, a small but ambitious nation that carries influence across the region, has a track record of brokering negotiations, and has done so successfully in Lebanon and Sudan.

Of course, establishing a lasting peace and a functional government in Afghanistan has eluded many others, including Mr Karzai's regime and the Taliban's short-lived Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

A United States state department official was quoted in The National yesterday as saying that "Afghan-led reconciliation is the surest way to end violence and ensure the lasting stability of Afghanistan and the region". This could be interpreted as the US washing its hands of the situation; certainly there is no appetite among ordinary Americans for further involvement in Afghanistan after its troops leave.

Qatar, the other Gulf nations and Afghanistan's neighbours, all want to see stable leadership in Kabul. But at the same time, there is a natural reluctance to see a return to the dark ages of Taliban rule, when human rights violations included pogroms against certain groups and the exclusion of women from schools and the workplace. Talks may be inconclusive, but at least now, with a Taliban office that Mr Karzai is open to visiting, there is a new venue to push the Taliban to act as a political entity rather than a recklessly violent one.