The chilling news of SP Tahir Khan Dawar’s gruesome murder was overtaken by reports over the weekend about Zalmay Khalilzad’s tense negotiations with Taliban leaders in Qatar and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul. But the questions raised by Dawar’s assassination and the ensuing spat between Kabul and Islamabad over the return of his mortal remains are grim reminders of the clear menace of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan.
The DG ISPR went further by referring to deeper conspiracies against Pakistan. It is, therefore, important to look into the implications of US-Taliban talks and assess, in particular, the risk of greater turmoil in Afghanistan in the coming months despite Khalilzad’s optimism to reach a negotiated end to America’s longest war over the next six months.
The US has all but conceded its failure to win the war in Afghanistan, and seems ready to give a timeframe for a military pullout from the country. Washington’s willingness to pack up and leave is in contrast to the scenario of a prolonged American military presence in Afghanistan for geopolitical considerations or to exploit the country’s mineral wealth. Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India and, above all, the regime in Kabul are nonplussed over a US departure that may leave the country in a more precarious situation.
The peace parleys are being conducted outside Afghanistan while news from within the country is about more death and destruction. Yet, Russia, China and the US are making efforts to bring the conflict in Afghanistan to a denouement. The US wants to limit its losses in the ‘graveyard of empires’ while Russia has been concerned about the spillover effects of the war into the former Soviet republics. China too is anxious to contain the Islamic movement in its western region.
Pakistan, which is Afghanistan’s direct neighbour and a country that has been worst-hit by the Afghan conflict, is reminiscing over how the Soviets became similarly anxious to pull out after 10 years of occupying the country in the 1980s, with no consideration for a power vacuum in the absence of a new power structure in place. Islamabad is solicited by the three big powers to facilitate peace efforts, but remains as sceptical of seeing a viable solution as it was in 1989.
One reason for this low level of hope is the absence of a clear will on the part of various Afghan factions to seriously negotiate peace terms and power-sharing arrangements. There is also no sign of the means required for ensuring the implementation of a peace accord.
Islamabad had misgivings about the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad, a strong critic of Pakistan’s policies, as a special envoy for talks with the Taliban. After targeting Pakistan for years on account of its support to the Taliban, Khalilzad is now fully engaged in arduous parleys with Taliban leaders. Meanwhile, US President Trump accuses Pakistan of helping the terrorists and yet wishes to engage them in serious negotiations.
The latest reports suggest that a breakthrough is on the cards after Khalilzad’s three-day talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar. The two sides are believed to be close to reaching an agreement for an exit schedule of foreign troops as well as a mechanism towards mainstreaming the Taliban in Afghan politics. The US may be poised to make an announcement about a pullout from Afghanistan in 2020 and unveil its new strategy for the war-torn country.
Khalilzad travelled from Qatar to Afghanistan to address the deep misgivings of the Kabul government about the peace talks without its participation. That, however, is not the only obstacle in achieving the objectives that might be agreed upon between the US and the Taliban leadership. The erstwhile Northern Alliance and sundry warlords probably remain powerful contenders. A Taliban ascendancy in Afghanistan is not without implications for the country’s neighbours, particularly Pakistan.
A likely consequence of the Taliban’s domination of Afghanistan would be the resurgence of likeminded groups in Pakistan to press for the implementation of their own version of an Islamic system. Afghan sources claim that the Taliban are prepared to provide assurances with regard to human rights, female education, and their role in health and teaching professions. For their part, the Taliban might seek assurances of non-interference from other countries in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has paid an enormous price for standing by the Taliban for almost three decades. It is time to seek assurances from the latter, not create more difficulties by trying to extend their influence in the bordering areas. In other words, Afghanistan’s neighbours also need assurances that the country is no longer a rear base for anti-state elements.
There is a long way to go before peace finally returns to Afghanistan. A very important aspect is to establish a peacekeeping mechanism once an agreement is reached. In a paradox of sorts, the UN – the global body established to ensure international peace after World War II – is kept out of the loop in efforts to broker peace in Afghanistan.
Tailpiece: PM Khan has thrown yet another stone in the pond by recounting the virtues of U-turns in politics and statecraft. Many are appalled at his linkage of historic defeats suffered by Napoleon or Hitler to their inability to make U-turns. It reminds one of his earlier description of the PTI’s surge as a tsunami, hitherto known as a killer phenomenon. Stay tuned for more linguistic innovations by Khan.