Asia

Ashraf Ghani's bold move for Taliban peace

Afghan security personnel arrive at the site of a bomb blast that targeted Nato forces in Kabul on July 7, 2015 Image copyright AFP
Image caption The talks in Islamabad laid down no preconditions for a ceasefire

The first face-to-face talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Pakistan happened after months of "talks about talks".

Those confidence-building events, in Oslo and Doha, were essential in laying a path to the one in Islamabad.

Crucially to getting to this point in what is now a peace process, there have not been any preconditions laid down, such as a ceasefire, that have hampered previous attempts by the US to engage the Taliban in talks.

On the contrary, the leader of the Afghan government delegation, Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai, said that there were no demands made on the Taliban to stop fighting. And there was no offer to stop large-scale military operations against the Taliban.

The list of demands raised by the Taliban in the initial four-hour meeting were familiar. They included the closure of all foreign military bases in Afghanistan and an exchange of prisoners.

Mr Karzai said that these were negotiable, although he said there had to be guarantees that released prisoners would not go back to the battlefield.

Mr Karzai said anything could be negotiated, including Taliban demands for amendments to the Afghan constitution.

The Taliban also demanded an end to the UN blacklist. This imposes sanctions, including a travel ban, on named individuals - and lifting it has been a constant demand from the Taliban, and others affected, for many years.

Although the blacklist is held by the UN, the decision on who is on it is ultimately for the US government.

The presence of US and Chinese diplomats as official observers at the Islamabad talks was another breakthrough.

The Afghan delegation said that China would host a future round of talks. The next round is expected to be later this month after the Eid holiday.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will brief fellow heads of state of neighbouring nations, including Russia, at this weekend's Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Russia.

Official delegation?

In a press conference back in Kabul, Hekmat Karzai said that, just as the other side had a checklist of demands, so did the government, and that included women's rights.

The early confidence-building meetings had included Afghan women, but all of the members of this government delegation were men.

One of them, Engineer Asim, described this as a "fundamental issue".

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption President Ghani has staked a lot of his authority on delivering peace

On the other side of the table, the Haqqani network was part of the Taliban negotiating team. This insurgent group, mostly based in the Waziristan region in western Pakistan, is allied to the Taliban.

One of the Afghan government negotiators, Haji Din Mohammed, said its presence was essential, because, "if you made peace with one, and the other was not present, then they would cause trouble".

Although the Afghan government team was convinced it was talking to an official Taliban delegation, there is some uncertainty as to whether this is true.

Among Taliban at the table were Mullah Nabil and Mullah Razaq, both senior members of the Taliban government before it fell in 2001.

But in an email to the New York Times, the Taliban political office in Doha said the delegation in Islamabad was not official.

It described the talks as "a step in the wrong direction". And the Taliban have put out a statement which does not clarify the confusion, by merely confirming that the political office has the "sole responsibility" to conduct any negotiations.

Nevertheless, one informed analyst in Kabul said that it was significant that there had been no statement denying that the team in Islamabad was official.

It is certainly a very different process to the still-born attempts made during the 12-year presidency of Hamid Karzai that never looked serious; but it is, of course, a different time now that foreign combat operations have finished.

And there is a theory that peace talks can only be successful when there is a "mutually hurting stalemate" - when both sides are taking punishment but neither can win. The conditions on the ground look like that now.

In beginning the peace process, Hekmat Karzai, a cousin of the former president, warned that success could take some time.

The Afghan public will need some persuading that it is worth it.

President Ghani's warmth to Pakistan, which made the talks possible, is highly controversial in Afghanistan, because of a widespread belief that Pakistan continues to arm and train insurgents to cross the border.

The president has staked a lot of his authority on delivering peace. He has enemies everywhere, not least among some political opponents he is now in harness with in the national unity government who want a fight to the finish with the Taliban.

He has made bold moves to bring the Taliban into a political process in public and private, including improving relations with Pakistan. Now that needs to bear fruit.