The season for Track II initiatives aimed at promoting intra-Afghan political dialogue is gathering steam both inside the country and abroad. Participants at two recent informal gatherings, one in France and the other in Japan, did not issue any statements but, according to sources at the meetings, they opted to discuss pressing items on their political agendas and agreed to meet again in a few months.
The Paris gathering on June 20-21 attended by representatives of the country's main political factions, High Peace Council (HPC), parliamentarians and members of civil society, was organized by the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS) and provided strict instructions to all delegates to keep a low profile. The first of such off-the-record meetings organized by FRS was held last November in Paris and was attended by a smaller number of Afghan political actors.
From the loyal Afghan opposition groupings, Yunus Qanooni, Homayun Shah Assefi and Noor-ul-Haq Olumi of the National Coalition (headed by former presidential candidate and Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah), head of the National Front Ahmad Zia Massoud, Hanif Atmar representing the Right and Justice party, and former Interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali were in attendance. There was no representation from two other political aspirants, Ashraf Ghani and Amrullah Saleh.
While no active Taliban member took part in the Paris meeting, several ex-Taliban officials, including Mullah Salam Zaeef - who was also invited to Japan - Abdul Hakim Mujahed and Habibulah Fowzi, as well as Hezb-i Islami Hekmatyar group members Ghairat Baheer and Amin Karim, did attend.
Two sources present at the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that although the Afghan government had decided against sending an official representative to Paris, two individuals with strong ties to President Hamid Karzai, his former campaign manager Haji Deen Mohamad, and Hekmat Karzai, a cousin heading a Kabul-based think tank, offered views at the meeting that did not contradict the president's political thinking.
Nader Naderi, Rida Azimi and Farkhonda Naderi were among the civil society activists and legislators who presented independent viewpoints at the meeting. It is reported that the only non-Afghan to take part was Abdullah Anas, an Algerian-born scholar, who has dealt with Afghan issues since the 1980s, and has been playing a behind-the-scenes mediating role at the behest of the HPC by reaching out to active Taliban.
Over a two day period, delegates mulled over election laws, decentralization and devolution, governance, constitutional reform, regional interference, the NATO pullout and reconciliation. Each side expressed its respective opinion and presented arguments to back their position. There was no agreement or common stance taken over any discussion topics.
The Kyoto meeting on the other hand, organized by the Doshisha University's Graduate School of Global Studies on June 27, was a rare occasion for HPC head Masoom Stanekzai to meet face-to-face with active Taliban representatives. Not only were Hizb-i Islami Hekmatyar representatives invited, but Qari Din Muhammad, a member of the Taliban's political office handling foreign affairs also spoke at the Kyoto conference on peace-building and reconciliation.
In a rare interview with the Asahi Shimbun daily on June 26, Din Mohammad said "we can have dialogue with him [President Karzai] as Afghans if foreign troops leave." He added, "as long as foreign troops remain, it is impossible to have any confidence, to have any dialogue, to have any negotiation with each party in the Karzai administration."
The unprecedented appearance of a Taliban delegate on the global scene, days ahead of the Tokyo conference on Afghan reconstruction assistance, indicates a willingness on their part to raise their international profile. It may also be a prelude to signaling a return to talks with the United States, suspended in March after the killing of civilians by an American soldier.
However, Din Mohammad explained that the talks were suspended after the United States refused the precondition to swap prisoners. Reiterating the militia's policy, he vehemently opposed continued American troop presence beyond 2014.
As the 2014 NATO withdrawal date approaches, and Afghanistan advances toward the complex triple transition processes relating to its political, security and economic sectors, it is becoming evident that there is more at stake than just a military drawdown or evaluating future candidates.
The momentous changes to take place over the next two years are not only a source of concern for most Afghans, but also an opportunity to deal with shortcomings, improve governance, assure a fair and free electoral process and become more self-reliant.
Historically, intra-Afghan talks have led to few tangible outcomes due to destructive outside patronage or inflated egos. However, the willingness of a diverse group of Afghan political actors to agree to have a dialogue, define their priorities, and propose solutions to outstanding challenges as part of Track II initiatives today, is a step in the right direction.
While some parties might show political flexibility and aim for compromise, others might harden their position and act as political spoilers later if talks lead to negotiations. Eventually, confidence-building and moving toward sustainable political coalition-building will be key elements of informal diplomacy and politicking.
A long and heated season of Afghan Track II initiatives are to be expected.
Omar Samad is a Senior Afghanistan Expert in residence at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. D.C. He was Afghanistan's ambassador to France (2009-2011), to Canada (2004-2009), and spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2001-2004). This article reflects his personal opinion.