ISLAMABAD - Afghanistan is showing its anger at Pakistan by downgrading its representation to the international group trying to arrange peace talks with the Taliban.
Kabul says Pakistan needs to honor its commitments to take action against militant groups operating from Pakistan. The groups include the Afghan Taliban and the lethal Haqqani network that Afghanistan and the United States say operate out of Pakistan to launch violent attacks in Afghanistan.
“Any future QCG meetings with Pakistan will be held on the ambassador level,” Dawa Khan Menapal, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's deputy spokesperson said.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, led his country’s delegation at Wednesday's meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). The delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai at previous meetings.
The delegations for the United States, China and Pakistan were led respectively by U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Olsen, Chinese Special Envoy on Afghan Affairs Deng Xijun, and Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry.
“Until there is action, for Afghan government peace negotiation is a waste of time,” Menapal added. He also said his government would focus more on the “intra-Afghan” negotiations.
Pakistan's political considerations
Pakistan insists it is sincerely trying to bring the Afghan Taliban to the table, but says such things take time. The Afghan government, Pakistani officials say, is in a hurry because of internal political considerations.
Afghan demands from Pakistan for action against the Taliban have peaked after a devastating attack killed nearly 70 people last month in Kabul.
President Ghani has asked Pakistan to either expel the Taliban or take military action. But Pakistan says a military solution has not worked in the past 15 years.
While the meeting was behind closed doors, analysts like Haroun Mir of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, expected it to be tough, with Afghanistan and Pakistan trading accusations.
A joint news release after the meeting said, “The QCG reiterated that violence serves no purpose, and peace negotiations remain the only option for a political settlement. In this respect, QCG countries reaffirmed to use their respective leverages and influences.”
Mir said Afghanistan should stay engaged in the QCG process despite slow progress, because finding common ground between Afghanistan and Pakistan is the “first step towards settlement in Afghanistan.”
Others, like journalist and regional expert Rahimullah Yousufzai are less optimistic. Even if talks with the Afghan Taliban started, Yousufzai said, they would not be fruitful anytime soon. The Afghan government and Taliban have each announced offensives and a breakthrough this summer was going to be hard.
“This issue is so old, so complicated, it involves so many hands, governments, non-state actors... that if anyone thought it could be resolved soon, it was wishful thinking,” Yousufzai said.
Dealing with Taliban
He also thought Pakistan made a mistake by giving the impression it could bring the Taliban to the table.
“I don’t think it is in Pakistan’s power to force the Taliban to make an agreement with the Afghan government against their interest,” he said.
Pakistan had arrested 100 Afghan Taliban leaders and released 48 of them on Karzai’s request so they could talk to them, but that didn’t work, he reminded.
“Taliban have alternatives. Anyone arrested or killed will be instantly replaced,” Yousufzai said.
Mir acknowledged it is difficult for Pakistan to do everything President Ghani demanded, but said Pakistan could still do more in terms of confidence building.
“Pakistan always says there is a change in policy, but we do not see it yet. It is not tangible for us,” he said.
He also criticized Pakistan's diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, which he said is responsible for alienating the young generation and the new leaders.
“Pakistan’s embassy in Afghanistan is not active. It is still the old mindset. They interact only with those they consider friends of Pakistan. The communication is lacking,” Mir said.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which appeared to be on an upward trajectory for a few months in early 2015, took a nosedive as Afghan Taliban increased its violent attacks in the country. 2015 was one of the bloodiest years since 2001.
The only long-term solution to reducing tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Yousufzai said, is strong action.
“If Pakistan expels Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network leaders, and Afghanistan expels Pakistani Taliban... then the root cause... will be resolved.”
That solution, he acknowledged, was difficult and unlikely to be implemented anytime soon. Meanwhile, he said, the QCG process will survive simply because there is no other forum to move forward.