Destination Murree has acquired a certain political significance in the recent years. PM Nawaz Sharif like so many other people is an admirer of the natural beauty and balmy weather of the good old hill station. He knows fully well how comfortable Murree can be as a venue for holding political and administrative meetings in the summer to avoid the sizzling heat of the plains of Punjab. Shimla in India is also a beautiful hill resort and is well known for many political conferences in pre-partition India. The negotiation process started between the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban on July 7, and will be called the Murree Process because it has been initiated at this famous hill station. But one earnestly hopes that despite being dubbed as the Murree Process, it remains an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” process as the Pakistani side has repeatedly claimed. The former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in his last visit to Pakistan had met General (r) Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, former COAS of Pak Army and General (r) Zaheer-Ul- Islam, former DG ISI in Murree after meeting PM Nawaz Sharif and his Adviser Sartaj Aziz in Islamabad. Since he had raised questions about the position and role of Pak Army’s leadership, Nawaz Sharif invited him to Murree to have a face to face meeting with Pakistani generals. Interestingly the formation of the present provincial government in Balochistan became possible only after the signing of the Murree accord among different political parties brokered by Nawaz Sharif after 2013 general elections in Pakistan.  

For the President Ashraf Ghani led Afghan government, it is a late start of the direct negotiations with Taliban as they had expected it to open in mid March after the Kabul visit of the Pak Army leadership in February. It was natural because the Afghan government had to go through a tough winter full of fierce fighting even after the publicly recognized successful Islamabad visit of President Ashraf Ghani in the second week of November last year. There were two problems. First after the starting of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June last year thousands of terrorist fighters crossed over into Afghanistan. They included Afghan Taliban, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and many foreign fighters like Chechens, Uzbeks and other Central Asian elements. A number of former TTP members switched sides from “bad Taliban” to become “good Taliban” by renouncing violence on the east of the Durand Line to join fighting inside Afghanistan. On Pakistani side the pro Taliban policy of the Cold War still prevailed. For example, when some leaders of the Punjabi Taliban declared their intent to join the Afghan front after Zarb-e-Azb, former Pak President Pervez Musharraf welcomed their decision in a public statement, little realizing that their public declaration in this regard would substantiate the stand of those Afghans who point an accusing finger at the Punjabi dominated ruling elite of Pakistan for continued fighting in their country. So pathetic was the level of political maturity and sensitivity on the Pakistan side. Even after the terrorist attack on Peshawar School and National Action Plan in December last year it was not clear that every one on the Pakistani side had fallen in line with the “new Afghan policy”. Resultantly there was not only a Taliban spring offensive but the fiercest one in the last so many years starting from northern and north eastern Afghanistan leading to terrible bloodshed. Secondly, Taliban were not in a hurry to enter formal negotiations, as they had almost zero political capital in terms of mass public support in Afghanistan. Their only strength is that of being a dreadful fighting machine. They wanted to use it for getting leverage in the battlefield, which could later help them as a bargaining chip in the proposed negotiations. But they also could not out rightly reject peace negotiations. So they had three informal meetings in Doha, Oslo and Oramci (China) for gaining time for the fighting season to strengthen their position in the battlefield before entering formal talks.

The intra Afghan dialogue process that has started after fresh large scale death and destruction in Afghanistan is still regarded a positive development as it has vindicated to certain extent the position of President Ashraf Ghani at home in terms of hinting at the possibility of reaching a negotiated settlement. It means some political respite for him. Apparently the Taliban delegation had the support of Quetta Shura led by Mulla Akhtar Mansoor, in the unexplained and mysterious absence of Mulla Umar. The delegation had leaders like Mulla Muhammad Hassan Rehmani, Mulla Abdul Jalil Akhund and Mulla Muhammad Abbas Akhund. Ibrahim Haqqani who along with other members of his family, is based in Pakistan for many years, represented the Haqqani Network in the delegation. The eight member official Afghan delegation consisted of representatives of Afghan High Peace Council and the Afghan government. The government was represented by a young intellectual from Durranis of Kandahar Hikmat Khalil Karzai, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Afghanistan whose family had supported Dr. Ashraf Ghani in the last Presidential elections. Haji Deen Mohammad a well known former Mujahideen leader coming from a very important political family of eastern Afghanistan led the members of the High Peace Council who represented different regions and ethnic groups of their country. Pakistani foreign secretary Mr. Aizaz Choudri and some officials of the foreign office and the ISI constituted the Pak delegation. Also as observers were present high ranking Chinese government and US representatives. The role of these observers from the two big powers is quite significant as their presence could have a sobering impact on the participants and discourage all sides from taking unreasonable and extremist positions. Former Afghan Mujahideen leaders in the Afghan official delegation believe on the basis of their own experience of the Jihad years in Pakistan that as traditional mentors of Afghan Taliban, Pakistani authorities could always “persuade” them, the noises abut the “Taliban’s rigidity” not withstanding. The question of inclusion of Afghan civil society representatives and women political leaders is still unresolved. How can a sustainable peace be achieved just by the belligerent parties without the participation of non combatants who are the real stack holders is yet to be seen.

Both sides have their own problems. The National Unity Government is faced with serious challenges of security, political unity, reforms and governance. On the other hand the Taliban face bigger problems. They were never a monolith organization but they could get away with their factional groupings being underground. But now under the media gaze they have to prove their political worth as a united political organization capable of taking part in politics as effectively as the could fight. The total and unexplained absence of Mullah Umar hangs like a Damocles sword over their heads. Both sides have committed to have a second round of negotiations after the Eid to discuss a formal cease fire. But much will depend on Taliban’s ability to control their rank and file and their foreign supporters to refrain from launching large scale attacks to create a conducive atmosphere for the success of the negotiations. Both sides have a long way to go with many potential slips between the cup and the lips.