Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a top Afghan peace negotiator, said he was cautiously optimistic about prospects for reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban and that all sides now realized a military solution to the war was not possible.
Stanekzai also told reporters that Kabul hoped to transform the Afghan Taliban, who have proved resilient after more than a decade of war against US-led NATO and Afghan troops, into a political movement.
He predicted the highly lethal Haqqani militant network, the most experienced at guerrilla warfare, would join the peace process if the Afghan Taliban started formal talks.
Signs are emerging that the Afghan government is gaining momentum in its drive to persuade the Taliban to lay down its arms before most NATO troops pull out of the country by the end of next year.
Members of the Afghan government, the Taliban and some of the group’s old enemies in the Afghan Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban for years, discussed ways of easing the conflict at a recent meeting in France.
“I think one consensus was that everybody acknowledged that nobody will win by military [means],” Stanekzai said.
Pakistan, long accused of supporting Afghan insurgents such as the Taliban, has sent the strongest signals yet that it will deliver on promises of helping the Kabul government and the US bring stability to its neighbor.
Stanekzai, who studied at Cambridge and was in charge of disarmament in Afghanistan before becoming a senior member of the Afhanistan High Peace Council, stressed that to bring long-term stability, reconciliation efforts should aim to bring the Taliban and other insurgents into Afghan politics.
Some activists fear that Kabul will make concessions to pacify the Taliban that could hurt efforts to improve women’s rights.
Stanekzai said Afghan security forces had made progress, but acknowledged that more work was needed to ensure they would be ready to take over when the US combat mission ends next year.
He also believes a free and fair presidential election in April next year is essential to prevent further conflict. The last vote was plagued by allegations of widespread fraud.
“This is the time where we have to enter in negotiations to make sure that does not happen, but, as you know, politicians are always politicians. They are always in a power game,” he said.
Stanekzai warned that reconciliation was complex, with many moving parts having to be synchronized.
The Haqqanis, who are close to al-Qaeda and have been blamed for a number of attacks on Western and Afghan targets in Kabul, are regarded as a possible spoiler.
However, Stanekzai did not seem too concerned about the group.
“When you go to a market, you always use a brand name and then you sell your very low-quality product under that brand name,” he said. “We enter a negotiation with the Taliban, which is the brand marketable name. The rest is easy.”
Asked if he thought there would be a breakthrough in peace efforts this year, Stanekzai said conditions had been established to make that possible. However, he added that Afghanistan was highly unpredictable.
“Anything can happen. You don’t know which direction these different actors will take,” he said.
Stanekzai knows that first hand.
He recalled how a man posing as a Taliban peace envoy kissed the hand of former Afghan president and High Peace Council chairman Burhanuddin Rabbani before detonating a bomb hidden in his turban.
Rabbani was killed instantly and Stanekzai was badly wounded. He says that faith in Islam has helped him recover.
“It’s life. In Islam, in our religion, it says even if you are in the middle of fire, Allah can save you,” he said.