By S Iftikhar Murshed
November 25, 2012
The joint statement encapsulating the outcome of the visit to Islamabad from November 12 to 15 of the Afghan High Peace Council delegation led by its chairman, Salahuddin Rabbani, is saturated with superficial formulations. Had the two sides taken the trouble to revisit important events from the days of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan they would have realised the importance of the ulema (clerics) in Afghan peace initiatives.
Clause seven of the communiqué proclaims that an agreement had been reached on convening an international ulema conference to condemn suicide attacks, project Islam as “a glorious and peaceful” religion, and reaffirm that it was a hideous travesty to equate it with terrorism. But such meetings have been held before, the most important being the Mardin Conference in Turkey on March 27-28, 2010, in which neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan bothered to participate.
The proposed ulema meeting merely for reaffirming the “glorious” teachings of Islam is unnecessary. It is as pointless as attempting to gild the lily or framing a Renoir to enhance its beauty. Far more important for ending the Afghan conflict is a meeting of clerics representing all the warring factions. This was agreed upon by the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in 1998. Had the chairman of the High Peace Council given some thought to this, he would have realised how closely his late father, Burhanuddin Rabbani, had been involved in this process. The background could be instructive because the concept is still relevant for pre-empting unparalleled violence after the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan in 2014.
In mid-October 1997, the chairman of the Taliban ruling council, Mullah Rabbani, visited Pakistan and informed us that the Taliban would agree to a dialogue in Islamabad with the Northern Alliance, on condition that all its leaders participated. Two months later, on December 23, Burhanuddin Rabbani arrived in Islamabad and this was a landmark event as it was the first official visit to Pakistan by the leader of the Northern Alliance since the capture of Kabul by the Taliban.
Rabbani was accordingly briefed about the Taliban offer, and his response was that it would be difficult for the entire leadership of the northern coalition to leave their respective areas for an extended period. But they could attend the inaugural and closing sessions leaving the actual negotiations to their designated representatives, who would be vested with full powers.
With this assurance, former foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad and I flew to Kandahar on December 28 where we had a two-and-a-half hour meeting with Mullah Omar. The self-styled amir-ul-momineen of Afghanistan expressed appreciation for Pakistan’s peace efforts and affirmed his own commitment to the same objective. However, he voiced serious concern about the Northern Alliance’s lack of sincerity as he was convinced that their only objective was to usurp power.
In deference to our impassioned appeal for flexibility, he proposed that the ulema from the north and the Taliban-controlled areas should meet in Islamabad to sort out the problems of Afghanistan in accordance with Islamic law. He explained that in his country clerics had traditionally played a vital role in resolving differences as their opinions and decisions had religious sanction.
We jetted back to Islamabad in time for a second meeting with Burhanuddin Rabbani before his departure for Meshed. His knee-jerk reaction to Mullah Omar’s proposal was that the Taliban were treacherous and did not want a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. I told him that the clerics of Kandahar had similar misgivings about the Northern Alliance. There had to be positive thinking on both sides of the Afghan political divide because the hopes of the future could not be built on the wounds of the past. He responded that a list of the ulema from the north would be sent to the Taliban within three days and suggested that the meeting be held around January 20, 1998.
Three months down the line, during a breakfast meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad on March 24, Mullah Rabbani told us that the ulema list of the Northern Alliance was a joke. It consisted of military commanders who knew nothing about Islam. To work round the impasse, he suggested the establishment of a steering committee consisting of five to seven members each from the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.
The committee, he elaborated, would finalise a list of the ulema, set a date for the conference, deliberate upon inviting the UN, the OIC and the Six Plus Two Group (consisting of Afghanistan’s six immediate neighbours plus the US and Russia) as observers, decide on a notional timeframe for the completion of the ulema meeting and, sort out its agenda which would revolve around the restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan.
The next four weeks were tense. The steering committee eventually met from April 26 to May 3, 1998, and was inaugurated by foreign minister Gohar Ayub Khan. For the first time ever the Taliban and the Northern Alliance had agreed to sort out their differences at the negotiating table. This had involved strenuous efforts by us and had necessitated intensive contacts with the warring factions in Kandahar, Kabul, Shibberghan, Mazar-e-Sharif, Farkhar and Dubai. An unexpected outcome of the meeting was a sudden halt in the fighting, and hopes soared high that this would prolong indefinitely.
The five-member Taliban delegation, which was led by Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, the adviser to Mullah Omar, included the governor of Kabul, the deputy interior minister, their ambassador in Islamabad and a senior official from Kandahar. In contrast, the Northern Alliance was represented by a nine-member team of junior officials. However, the Taliban, who were blissfully unaware of diplomatic niceties, did not object to this.
The meeting got off to a promising start. The two sides agreed that they would prepare their own list of twenty ulema each which nether would veto. This was a major achievement and the sensation-hungry media described it as a “breakthrough.” Thus the primary work of the steering committee had been accomplished. And, as agreed earlier, the two delegations started talks on the agenda for the ulema conference, which was to meet within a few days, on issues such as a permanent ceasefire, exchange of prisoners and the lifting of blockades. However, the Shia Hizb-e-Wahdat, a component of the Northern Alliance, insisted that these questions, particularly the comprehensive lifting of the blockades, be resolved immediately.
We worked through the night to narrow the differences. Wakil phoned Mullah Omar in Kandahar to persuade him to remove the blockades, but Mullah Omar insisted that this should be left to the ulema conference. In desperation, Wakil yelled: “May God rid me of you!” and received an equally stern rebuke. The conversation, if it can be called that, was fascinating. Here was an official cursing his supreme leader to his face which the latter accepted because that is the way the fiercely independent Afghans interact with each other.
Eventually, as the first sign of dawn stealthily appeared over the Islamabad skyline, Mullah Omar relented and agreed to allow humanitarian supplies to Bamyan and Ghorbund. I conveyed the news on satellite phone to the Hizb-e-Wahdat leader, Karim Khalili, in a remote area of Bamyan, but he dismissed the concession. The prospect for a breakthrough quickly evaporated like the morning dew on the petals of early summer roses, and Afghanistan relapsed into conflict.
This was as close to a negotiated end to the fighting that the Afghan groups have ever reached in the 16 years since September 1996. The ulema conference that they had agreed upon was never intended to project the glories of Islam. It was a mechanism for restoring peace. Islamabad and Kabul need to rework their wordy joint statement of November 15. A final settlement may still be possible through a panel of the ulema. After all, this is what all the warring factions had accepted only a few years ago.
S Iftikhar Murshed is the publisher of Criterion quarterly. Email: iftimurshed@ gmail.com