British general’s ‘discreet’ effort to revive Afghan peace negotiations
Britain’s top general, Sir Nick Carter, has been using his personal connections with Afghan and Pakistan leaders in a behind-the-scenes effort to stop Afghanistan sliding into full-blown civil war, and help bolster stalling US-brokered peace talks in Qatar.
At the weekend a senior Afghan delegation arrived in Doha to try to restart the virtually dormant negotiations, after months which have seen the Taliban sweep across much of rural Afghanistan, although they still do not hold any cities.
The British initiative dates back more than a year, and has seen Carter shuttling between Kabul and Islamabad in a private jet with one of Pakistan’s top generals, and organising a meeting between key Afghan and Pakistan officials in Bahrain, Afghan sources say.
Carter’s work was described as “discreet” by Abdullah Abdullah, the government’s top peace envoy, who said Britain’s chief of the defence staff was coordinating with both President Ashraf Ghani, who he knows well, and Abdullah himself.
He declined to comment further on the general’s role. But another senior Afghan official said that the aim of the meetings was to see if Pakistan could be persuaded to use its leverage with the Taliban to push the group back towards the negotiating table.
The Pakistani government denies formal ties to the insurgency but militants have operated out of its border areas for years – last week fighters were filmed getting treatment in government hospitals – and their families are all based in Pakistan.
Islamabad supported the militants’ first rise to power in the 1990s. Pakistan was one of very few countries to offer them diplomatic recognition, and its powerful ISI agency has long been reported to have very close links to the militants.
In May Carter flew into Kabul with Pakistan’s chief of the army staff, Gen Qamar Javed Bawja, on a private jet that Afghan sources said the UK military boss had arranged, for a meeting with Ghani.
Carter has a personal relationship with the Afghan president from his years as deputy commander of the Nato mission. At the time Ghani was in charge of “transition”, the handover of the war effort from foreign to Afghan troops, and the men spent a lot of time travelling the country.
They have remained in touch, reportedly on good terms. According to one senior military official, who described Carter as “a great friend of Afghanistan”, the two talk most weeks.
Not everyone in Kabul believes Pakistan is really interested in pushing for a negotiated end to the war, even if they appreciate the British efforts.
“This back channel is meant to see if Pakistan can be convinced to use their influence,” the senior official said of Carter’s efforts. “Then all of a sudden they say they don’t actually have any [influence] … There hasn’t been any practical results.”
However the Taliban’s rapid military advances, which mean they control more than half of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts, do appear to have spurred a renewed regional focus on attempts to broker peace.
One senior Afghan source claimed that military success had spurred “buyer’s remorse” from neighbours who supported the Taliban but were not prepared for them to seize so much of the country so fast.
Countries such as Iran and Pakistan who were unhappy at the US military presence on their doorstep are now worried about the prospect of a hardline regime that might trigger a flood of refugees or feed extremist violence back across the border.
At the start of July, Iran hosted the first serious talks in months. Uzbekistan last week held a major gathering of regional powers focused on Afghanistan’s future.
And Pakistan reportedly helped push the Taliban back to the table in Doha, where military victories had made the group’s negotiators openly contemptuous of the talks, Afghan sources say. “They told our negotiators these aren’t peace talks any more, they are surrender talks,” one told the Observer.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said his delegation had not made any remarks about surrender, and it was enemy propaganda to claim they had. “This is not our policy,” he said. “These are negotiations for the peaceful solution of the Afghan issue.”
Despite the Taliban’s rapid advances in recent months, there may still be grounds for trying to reach a negotiated end to the war, although the government would probably have to offer far greater concessions than they have contemplated so far.
They have not yet taken any major cities, it is unclear how well they can govern large areas, and they may not be able to hold everywhere they have captured.
The Taliban, almost wiped out in 2001 by the US and its allies, know better than most how a defeated movement can slowly regroup, gathering support across Afghanistan’s fractured landscape of ethnic and religious minorities.
Their own overtures for a negotiated surrender 20 years ago were pushed aside by Americans focused not on Afghan peace but vengeance. Their opponents could try to regroup and pursue a similar war of attrition.
The MoD declined to comment on Carter’s efforts.