Representatives from the Afghan government and the Taliban attended an international conference in Norway this week. 150 people gathered in a small town outside Oslo to discuss different ways to end conflict. While there was no plan for formal peace talks between the two factions, the very fact that they were attending the same meeting was a step in the right direction. As Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende put it, ‘if you are going to reach peace than those who disagree must talk together.’
This is not the first time Norway has tried to encourage cooperation and communication between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Earlier this month, delegates from both sides took part in informal talks about women’s rights and education for girls; this on top of other informal meetings between the Taliban and the Afghan government in different parts of the Gulf. Even though none of these encounters can be characterised as peace talks, the fact that they are meeting on such a regular basis indicates a willingness to move to official negotiations in the future.
There are several reasons for Taliban agreement to these informal talks. First, Pakistan, which has been an important supporter of the Taliban, has put increasing pressure on the group. One reason for this being that China is worried about the overspill of militancy in the region into western China. China has put pressure on Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to become more open to the possibility of peace negotiations. Last but by no means least, there is reason to believe that the Taliban finds the new government in Afghanistan easier to communicate with than the old Karzai administration.
It is difficult to predict whether 2015 will see the start of any official peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Taliban’s continued use of violence suggests otherwise. That the two factions have had increased communication over recent months is a positive development. But in order for peace negotiations to take place and be successful both parties must be completely committed, and the current situation on the ground suggests that this might not be the case.
Pakistan’s parliament has unanimously passed a resolution expressing its ‘desire that Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict.’ While the resolution also reaffirms Pakistan’s ‘unequivocal support of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,’ this desire for neutrality indicates that the country will not be joining the Saudi-led military coalition that is currently fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. The parliamentary resolution is not binding on the executive branch of government, meaning that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could still decide to take part in the coalition. But the fact that it was passed unanimously and that large parts of the resolution were proposed by senior cabinet member and Minister of Finance Ishaq Dar, who is a member of the ruling PML-N party and related to Prime Minister Sharif, suggests that it is highly unlikely the government will defy it.
Members of both houses of parliament began debating involvement in Yemen on Monday the 6th of April, since when many Pakistani politicians and lawmakers have spoken out against joining the coalition. The request put forward by Saudi Arabia placed Pakistan in a difficult position. On the one hand, Pakistan is a longstanding ally to Saudi Arabia and they share strong economic, military and religious ties. On the other hand, it shares a border with Iran, a country allegedly providing assistance to the Houthi rebels that Saudi Arabia is trying to defeat. Agreeing to provide military troops and equipment to the Saudi-led coalition could therefore possibly sour relations between Pakistan and its neighbour.
Getting involved could possibly also inflame sectarian tensions domestically. On April 3rd, anti-Shia armed groups in Pakistan – including those behind numerous incidents of anti-Shia violence in recent years – took to the streets to express their support for the Saudis and their detestation of Iranian influence. If the Pakistani government were to join Sunni Saudi Arabia, or indeed Shia Iran, that could serve to induce more protests and even sectarian violence. Pakistan has a Sunni majority but the Shia minority makes up around one-fifth of the population, making Pakistan the largest home to Shias outside Iran. Pakistan is therefore afraid of being caught in the middle of two actors that are on the verge of an all-out proxy war on Yemeni soil.
Deciding against joining the Saudi-led military coalition was a smart move. Not only could it complicate things at home, but also abroad. While Pakistan still remains an ally to Saudi Arabia, the decision to remain neutral in the Yemen conflict suggests that the country is still capable of making tough decisions that it perceives to be in its best interest.