Russia has tactfully used the centennial of Moscow-Kabul diplomatic relations to bargain peace with the Taliban. In the name of this moot, Kremlin has hosted the Taliban for informal peace talks with warring Afghan factions. The event has been used also to send a clear message to Washington that peace can only be achieved if complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is ensured.
The US takes it as an exception. After all, Washington hasn’t spent billions of dollars and fought for eighteen years just to admit defeat and quit. At maximum, it can phase out, keeping a couple of thousand troops and experts around. A total recall is more than day dreaming.
The lack of progress on this very timeline has put the spotlight on the Taliban. The movement had nothing to lose even if there were no talks. Yet, the chronic issue has suspiciously lingered on so long that the Taliban are finding one supportive platform after another.
To the displeasure of the US, Russia has hosted them three times in the last seven months and many other countries are also offering their good offices. Little doubt that Moscow offers more hospitable environment for obvious reasons. The resistance force has got assurances that their political interests will be respected as long as they will not harm Russia.
Late last month, Moscow spread the table for Mullah Baradar and his 14-member delegation. The co-founder of the movement met senior Afghan leaders and candidates who challenge President Ghani. As expected, the Taliban didn’t accept even a temporary ceasefire for Eid and vowed ‘to continue fighting till the occupying force exit their land’.
Diplomatically, this moot has further pushed Washington to the back benches. Back in April, a similar grand meeting arranged for the very purpose in Qatar could not materialize. Even the sixth round of exclusive US-Taliban talks didn’t conclude in an agreement.
Was it a mistake that Washington relied too much on the Taliban at the expense of Kabul? Or has side-lining the Afghan government backfired? At least, keeping Kabul in the dark about parleys with the Taliban has added fuel to the fire. The Ghani government feels divorced internationally. The three-time postponement of the presidential elections has also waned their legitimacy at home. Ghani is now awarding expired ministries to supporters in the futile hope that it will help his re-election bid, even though he knows the chances of such elections are remote.
This scenario is further advantageous to the Taliban who have ditched every international effort to enter talks with the outgoing regime. Now, they are the only force that has the capability to dictate terms in the conflict-riven country. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) had admitted back in January that districts under government control or influence remain at 53.8 percent while others lie under Taliban. Now, it is contentious how much of Afghanistan has further fallen under militants as the US is no more tracking the insurgency’s district level status. The prime concern for Washington is to find a strategy that can conclude the war.
To hit the target, the US is pleasing the Taliban to an extent that even Ghani’s close associates are accusing Khalilzad of conspiring to become the viceroy of Afghanistan. The fact is that the Kabul regime doesn’t realize that they have failed to deliver just like their predecessor Hamid Karzai who is now playing for the other side.
On the international front, Zalmay Khalilzad has sought help from even those who are blamed for undercutting US gains.
Washington has somewhat realized that, without accommodating regional countries, stability will remain a distant possibility. Here, the success in finding a common solution depends on how far the US can address the concerns of Russia and China.
The US special representative made a good beginning by visiting Moscow to meet his Sino-Russian counterparts. But when it comes to making a final decision on withdrawal, Khalilzad has his own limits. It’s high time he hosted a representative meeting of Afghan factions that is long overdue and cements the pathway to peace. Later, summit-level talks should seal the deal.
President Trump has already hinted that he wants a troop withdrawal by 2020. Eighteen years of war has cost his country the deaths of almost 6000 personnel. Due to many good reasons, it’s still less than half the number that the Soviets lost from 1979-89. The number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan also stand at ten percent of the causalities this unfortunate country suffered at the hands of the Soviets.
Over these years, the US also doled out almost $125 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction. Sixty-five percent of that amount was earmarked to build a 309,000-member Afghan army. Yet, the so called ANDSF is unable to face off the Taliban whose number stands at one-fourth. As a result, the country is witnessing roughly 50 deaths per day.
Who supports the Taliban is no more a question. Even if the so-called indispensable peace-broker, Russia, is among the ones arming them, it hardly matters.
For Russia, the foundation of a sustainable peace process is being laid, a peace that has different connotations for different countries. Cash-starved Pakistan has its own priorities but its manoeuvring capabilities are increasingly getting limited for seeking economic bailout.
War-mongering against Iran has posed a new challenge. Some countries take it as an opportunity while others fear the long-term consequences of the fallout. In any case, the victor of the situation remains the Taliban as they have some active presence in the ungoverned country’s border provinces with Iran.
It’s significant that even the Taliban are expecting to reach sustainable peace. For them, the P of ‘peace’ stands for the pull out of foreign troops. The resistance force is convinced that it can deal with any eventuality later.
By hosting the Taliban three times, Russia has gotten its reservations about the future addressed. It’s time for the US to make the deal before it’s too late to have a good bargain.
The writer is a senior journalistassociated with Geo News.
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