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September 24, 2017

Pushing for peace


September 24, 2017

America’s longest war is getting even longer with the recent review that has led to the assessment that Washington cannot walk away from Afghanistan and see its sacrifices of men and material end in ignominy. In addition, there is a growing realisation that a US departure will also hasten the fall of the house of cards in Kabul, which goes by the name of the National Unity Government.

There is also a general consensus on the ground situation having reached a stalemate, with no sign of a victory for either side. While reconciliation between the government and the Taliban looks problematic as ever, Track-II diplomacy remains active. Its second round was held in Islamabad on September 12 and September 13 and sought to assess peace prospects in Afghanistan as well as normalise its frayed relations with Pakistan. The first session had taken place in Kabul earlier this year.

The second meeting was held under the joint sponsorship of the Regional Peace Institute in Islamabad and the Royal Danish Defence College. The participants included representatives from various political formations as well as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan. The Pakistani side comprised former ambassadors, civil and military officers and media persons. The meeting dealt with a vast agenda. This article will focus on discussions on the chances of resuming the stalled talks for a political solution.

Afghanistan’s official position was articulated by its ambassador to Pakistan. He asserted that relations between both countries were fractured and needed to be repaired. While there were no issues between the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the same was not true on the state levels as both countries had mismanaged relations with the other. He urged Pakistan to manage relations with his country irrespective of India and try not to dictate terms like seeking a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul.

The scenarios of the peace process in Afghanistan were based on the premise that following the review of America’s strategy, US troops would stay in Afghanistan for some time. While the time was ripe for peace efforts, the prospects were not encouraging owing to various factors, especially the reluctance among the Afghan Taliban leadership to enter into talks with the government in Kabul. The primary considerations in favour of the talks were the war fatigue among the people and the realisation among the parties that neither side could win by force.

The opinion on the third party’s role was divided. It was acknowledged that the Afghans have a long-standing tradition of making peace through the jirga system. Some have argued that the third party’s role in hosting talks should not be ruled out.

Yet, in the prevailing situation, there was a lack of courage among the various leaders to own a result-oriented dialogue. The country was being run as a war economy, with many people benefiting from the spoils. Mistrust reigned at every level, everywhere. The continuing war was an easier option while the path to peace was an arduous one. Ethnic divisions also stood as a major obstacle in the path of reconciliation.

There was a discussion on the desirability and feasibility of a grand bargain as a way forward to reconciliation. Kabul’s Hezb-e-Islami accord could serve as a precursor. However, the Taliban are used to stonewalling progress in talks as that could legitimise the Kabul government and result in a split within the movement. They have been insisting on a complete withdrawal of foreign troops as a ploy to delay meaningful negotiations.

At times, they have demanded to hold talks with the US rather than the government in Kabul. Fears were expressed that the Taliban’s adherence to jihad, a supreme leader and an emirate were outdated. The growing Taliban influence in Afghanistan could trigger hopes for a similar system in Pakistan.

As a fallback from the impossibility of a grand bargain, agreements could perhaps be reached between the government forces and local Taliban commanders to bring down the level of violence.

After months of tense ties between the Afghan government and Pakistan, there are encouraging signs that the two sides may find a common ground to encourage the peace process in Afghanistan. While Kabul wants Islamabad to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table, most of their leadership is now in Helmand. The new leader, Mullah Haibatullah, is not in complete command of the Taliban. The incessant pressure on Pakistan to turn away the Taliban leaders and their regrouping in Helmand has led to a diminishing Pakistani influence on the Taliban leadership.

Looking at the ground realities, while the Taliban control vast rural areas, they do not hold urban centres. An interesting revelation at the Islamabad session was that the areas under government control are better off in terms of infrastructure and facilities. Those controlled by the Taliban suffer from bad governance or the lack of it. With the departure of most foreign forces, fighting has been ‘Afghanised’.

In the absence of progress toward a grand bargain, some participants voiced support for local agreements between the government and Taliban leaders in some areas. The people have been at the edge of their nerves but the warriors call the shots. And the warriors have only known how to fight, not make peace.

A European expert was vocal in his assessment that criticising Pakistan would not help matters because Islamabad has also been urged to assist the peace process. Constructive engagement is the answer. Pakistan should be in a supportive instead of a leading role. That way, Islamabad may be in a position to help kick-start the dialogue.

Among the views expressed at the meeting was a plea to hold talks in the absence of an intrusive media. That indeed is a tall order in these times when leaders have taken to conducting diplomacy through the media. How discreet negotiations can be held in times of megaphone diplomacy is the million-dollar question.

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