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February 11, 2013

Talks Between Afghan, Pakistani Clerics Reportedly Hit Snag

by Sharon Behn

A delegation of Afghan religious leaders was in Islamabad Monday for talks with their Pakistan counterparts on the reconciliation process between militants and the Afghan government. Despite all efforts, the meeting appears to have ended in a deadlock.

A group of eight Afghan religious scholars held a 10-hour session in Islamabad with their Pakistani religious counterparts to discuss the details of a special religious gathering, or "ulema jirga," to be held in the Afghan capital Kabul to help secure a peaceful future for Afghanistan as international forces leave that country in 2014.

But after Monday's talks, a member of the Pakistani delegation, Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, told VOA that the two sides had failed to produce a written agreement on what he said were the Pakistani side's two basic conditions for the Kabul gathering: first, that the Afghan Taliban be included in it; and, second, that no religious edicts, or fatwas, be issued against the Afghan Taliban and no statements be made in favor of the Afghan government.

"First, we told them please invite the Afghan Taliban in this conference, and secondly, we think in this conference the people, the ulema, will not give any fatwa against any group," said Ashrafi.

Agreement needed

Ashrafi said the Pakistani religious delegation would only go to Kabul when the Afghan Peace Council agreed to the two conditions set out.

At a press conference Monday after the Islamabad meeting, another Pakistan delegation member, Mufti Abu Huraira Mohiuddin, made no mention of the two conditions, but said 250 religious scholars from each country would participate in the "ulema jirga" sometime in March, following a high level meeting in Kabul planned for February 21.

Previously, it had been suggested that the Islamic scholars could meet to issue a religious edict, or fatwa, against suicide bombings, a common Taliban tactic in Afghanistan. It is unclear where that initiative currently stands.

Reviving negotiations

The religious talks parallel a series of high-level political and military meetings between Kabul and Islamabad, and reflect efforts made by Afghanistan, Pakistan and the international community to kick-start Afghan reconciliation talks.

Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, said the conflict in Afghanistan appears to have reached a stalemate. That development, combined with the realization that international troops will be out of Afghanistan within 22 months, has pushed all domestic and foreign players toward compromise. Yusuf said it is unclear, though, where all these efforts will end up.

"I don’t think there is a coherent plan behind them. The only thing everybody knows is they need to keep trying whatever they can, and any conversation, any dialogue, is better than none, and the only urgency is now to somehow get Pakistan to push the Afghan Taliban to sit on the table and start talking," said Yusuf.

Analysts say it is unclear how cohesive the Taliban is, and how much control the leaders will have over their fighters if a compromise agreement is reached. But some of the Pakistani religious scholars who have political backing are believed to have some influence over the insurgency.

Eye on Kabul

Previous attempts to hold a meeting of religious scholars from the two countries have failed, with each side accusing the other of political maneuvering. But Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasool said earlier Monday he hoped a meeting would take place within weeks.

God willing, he said, this gathering will be held in Kabul in the first two weeks of March, which in and of itself is a development.

As part of the ongoing peace process, Pakistan recently released a number of Afghan Taliban detainees.

Gen. Gunter Katz, spokesman for the international military coalition in Afghanistan, confirmed Monday that the pullout of military hardware from Afghanistan through neighboring Pakistan has begun.