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Taliban talks flounder

This time, the organisers of the Doha round have called off the conference that was scheduled to begin last Friday between Afghan leaders and Taliban insurgents.

Editorial | New Delhi |

In a major setback to Donald Trump’s foreign policy, the US-led peace process, geared to end nearly 18 years of relentless conflict in Afghanistan, has hit the reefs. This lengthens the loop of US setbacks ever since President George Bush ~ in the aftermath of 9/11 ~ had raided the caves of Tora Bora to “smoke out” Osama bin Laden (October 2001).

The rest is history. This time, the organisers of the Doha round have called off the conference, that was scheduled to begin last Friday, between Afghan leaders and Taliban insurgents. That the two sides were on a rough patch was palpable the day before when the exploratory meeting was postponed.

As it turned out, the meeting at Doha’s high table has been cancelled by the sponsors in the face of disputes among Afghan officials, Taliban leaders and the Qatari hosts over the size and composition of the Afghan delegation. The size of the Afghan delegation is said to have been a contentious issue. While there is no indication of when the meeting will be rescheduled, the next round seems unlikely anytime soon.

Indeed, there has been little or no forward movement in the peace process partly because the insurgents have thus far refused to hold talks with representatives of the government in Kabul. A similar exercise in Pakistan some years ago was doomed at the threshold because of a lack of trust in the government in Islamabad. Sad to reflect that despite seemingly well-intentioned efforts of all parties, they have failed to reach a shared understanding on inclusivity.

Does Friday’s cancellation signify a lack of will to bring about peace in a tormented and fractious land? Is the host government of Qatar intent on setting the terms of engagement, specifically dictate the number of guests? Answers to these queries may not be forthcoming quite yet. Not that the Taliban doesn’t have an issue with the Afghan team, which has been debunked as a “sprawling delegation that is more like an Afghan wedding or other party in Kabul.”

If indeed the talks have floundered on the size of the Afghan delegation, it boils down to a dispute over peripherals and not the core issue, specifically the furious insurgency in Afghanistan. In its immediate response to the cancellation, the government of President Ashraf Ghani has blamed the Qatar government for not accepting a list of proposed Afghan delegates.

Instead, Doha has been blamed for proposing a list that was “not balanced” and marked “a disrespect to the national will of the Afghan people.” There was no immediate comment on the cancellation from the Taliban; suffice it to register that the insurgents have thus been able to avoid meeting a weighty Afghan delegation, and literally so.

The waters can only get murkier in the event of yet another Taliban outrage between now and the next round, if one takes place. Dashed for now is the hope of peace.