Britain’s top general Sir Nick Carter has been using his personal connections with Afghan and Pakistani leaders in a behind-the-scenes effort to prevent Afghanistan from sliding into a full-blown civil war and to help reinforce the stalled talks. mediated by the United States in Qatar.
Over the weekend, a high-ranking Afghan delegation arrived in Doha to try to restart the largely dormant negotiations, after months in which the Taliban spread across much of rural Afghanistan, though they still don’t control any cities.
The British initiative dates back more than a year and has seen Carter travel between Kabul and Islamabad in a private jet with one of Pakistan’s top generals and arrange a meeting between key Afghan and Pakistani officials in Bahrain, say Afghan sources.
Carter’s work was described as “low-key” by Abdullah Abdullah, the government’s top peace envoy, who said Britain’s chief of defense staff was coordinating with both President Ashraf Ghani, whom he knows well, and with Abdullah himself.
He declined to comment further on the general’s role. But another senior Afghan official said the purpose of the meetings was to see if Pakistan could be persuaded to use its influence with the Taliban to push the group to the negotiating table.
The Pakistani government denies any formal ties to the insurgency, but militants have operated outside its border areas for years: fighters were filmed last week. receiving treatment in government hospitals, and their families are based in Pakistan.
Islamabad supported the militants’ first rise to power in the 1990s. Pakistan was one of the few countries to offer them diplomatic recognition, and its powerful ISI agency has long been reported to have very close ties with the militants.
In May, Carter flew to Kabul with the Pakistani chief of staff, General Qamar Javed Bawja, in a private jet that, according to Afghan sources, had been arranged by the UK military chief, to meet with Ghani.
Carter has a personal relationship with the Afghan president from his years as a deputy commander of the NATO mission. At the time, Ghani was in charge of the “transition,” the handover of the war effort from foreign troops to Afghan ones, and the men spent a lot of time traveling the country.
They have kept in touch, apparently on good terms. According to a senior military official, who described Carter as “a great friend of Afghanistan,” the two talk most weeks.
Not everyone in Kabul believes that Pakistan is really interested in pushing for a negotiated end to the war, even if they appreciate British efforts.
“This side channel is meant to see if Pakistan can be convinced to use its influence,” the senior official said of Carter’s efforts. “Then all of a sudden they say they don’t really have [influence] … There has been no practical result. “
However, the rapid military advances of the Taliban, meaning they control more than half of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts, appear to have spurred a renewed regional focus in attempts to negotiate peace.
A senior Afghan source claimed that the military success had fueled “buyer’s remorse” from neighbors who supported the Taliban but were unprepared for them to take over much of the country so quickly.
Countries like Iran and Pakistan, which were unhappy with the American military presence at their doorstep, are now concerned about the prospect of a hard-line regime that could unleash a flood of refugees or fuel extremist violence across the border.
In early July, Iran hosted the first serious conversations in months. Uzbekistan held a major meeting of regional powers last week focused on the future of Afghanistan.
And Pakistan reportedly helped push the Taliban to the table in Doha, where military victories had caused the group’s negotiators to openly despise the talks, Afghan sources say. “They told our negotiators that these are no longer peace talks, they are surrender talks,” said one to the Observer.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said his delegation had not commented on the surrender and that it was enemy propaganda to say yes. “This is not our policy,” he said. “These are negotiations for the peaceful solution of the Afghan problem.”
Despite the rapid advances of the Taliban in recent months, there may still be reasons to try to reach a negotiated end to the war, although the government would likely have to offer much larger concessions than it has so far contemplated.
They haven’t taken any major cities yet, it’s unclear how well they can rule large areas, and they may not be able to hold onto all the places they’ve captured.
The Taliban, nearly wiped out in 2001 by the United States and its allies, know better than most how a defeated movement can slowly regroup, gathering support in Afghanistan’s fractured landscape of ethnic and religious minorities.
His own proposals for a surrender negotiated 20 years ago were shelved by Americans focused not on Afghan peace but on revenge. His opponents could attempt to regroup and wage a similar war of attrition.
The Defense Ministry declined to comment on Carter’s efforts.