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July 14, 2019

Peace prospects in Afghanistan


July 14, 2019

It was only a few days back that I shared my pessimism with a friend about the open-ended conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria. He was interested to know the reasons for my loss of hope. However, before we could talk about the two civil wars, with the involvement of foreign powers, the horizon of peace in Afghanistan seems to have brightened up.

The world watches in near awe, with some disbelief, as Zalmay Khalilzad shares his hope of a successful conclusion of talks with the Taliban leadership, to enable the world’s superpower to wind up its combat operations in the ‘graveyard of empires’.

This optimism in the search for a peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict has been made possible by result-oriented talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban on the one hand, and sustained efforts by countries like Pakistan, China, Russia and most recently Germany on the other. The latest round of US-Taliban peace talks in Doha took a break to enable the Afghans to discuss among themselves without intermediaries, the outline of a roadmap for peace to end the forty-years old fratricidal conflict.

Classical diplomacy has no term to describe the ‘non-talks’ which took place in Doha among the Afghans. The Taliban conveniently claimed that the Afghan government’s representatives attended the meeting in their personal capacity as the former did not accept the Kabul setup as a legitimate government. It is, therefore, not clear what importance to attach to the roadmap to peace adopted by the Taliban and other Afghan entities represented in Doha.

The paradox does not end there. The Americans are pushing the peace process as new elections in Afghanistan are due, in principle, by September. The Taliban are most interested in securing a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces. The Americans have not yet conceded that point while looking for a package that would facilitate a transition, with the Taliban undertaking that no terror groups would be allowed to operate from Afghanistan.

Khalilzad was upbeat at the end of his talks with the Taliban team, terming the latest meeting as “the most productive of the rounds” while the Taliban conceded that they were “happy with progress”. However, difficult issues like power sharing or the fate of Ashraf Ghani’s administration remain unresolved.

The formidable challenges that await further talks became evident from the Four-Party Joint Statement on the Afghan Peace Process, issued at the end of US-China-Russia-Pakistan consultations held in Beijing on July 10-11. While acknowledging the “recent positive progress as the crucial parties concerned have advanced their talks and increased contacts with each other” the four nations called upon them to “immediately start intra-Afghan negotiations between the Taliban, Afghan government and other Afghans”.

The joint statement further aims at increasing the pressure on the Afghans by asserting “that these negotiations should produce a peace framework as soon as possible… and this framework should guarantee the orderly and responsible transition of the security situation and detail an agreement on a future inclusive political arrangement acceptable to all Afghans”.

The Four-Party Joint Statement is probably the most ambitious consensus reached among the major players to convey to the Afghan parties that life cannot go on as before and a major endeavour is expected of “all parties to reduce violence leading to a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire that starts with intra-Afghan negotiations”.

It has taken seventeen years of military operations by the superpower and its allies against what the US till recently dubbed as terrorists. The credit for a strong push towards peace goes to US President Trump who has vigorously advocated US disengagement from endless wars. Indeed, if Trump can bring US troops back from Afghanistan before the presidential election next year, it could raise his standing and brighten his chances of re-election barring some adverse domestic developments.

The three major powers gathered in Beijing acknowledged that “Pakistan can play an important role in facilitating peace in Afghanistan” but the joint statement conceded that the intra-Afghan negotiations should be “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned”. That still sounds like a tall order and something the Afghans have failed to fructify since the departure of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989. Will the four-party mechanism, likely to be expanded eventually, possess enough levers to bring the Afghans to agree to a durable settlement?

Further, the Taliban may be unwilling to give away what they have won on the ground. The idea of “an inclusive political arrangement” to follow a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire has to be embraced by the Taliban but is something that can cause a split within their ranks. The moment of reckoning is here. The Taliban leaders have to give up their goal of exclusively ruling Afghanistan or spreading their monolithic model to the neighbouring countries.

The Pakistani leadership deserves credit for playing its cards well in this extremely complex dynamic and the forthcoming meeting in Washington between PM Khan and President Trump, with the assistance of top diplomats and military commanders, is a unique opportunity to reset Pak-US ties which have suffered years of neglect.

Alarm bells are meanwhile ringing in Delhi over Washington’s cosying up to Pakistan after India was designated as a privileged strategic partner of the US in South Asia and the larger Indo-Pacific calculus. But other low-key developments are taking place notably in the Track II meetings between Pakistan and India.

It may be too early to say that the stalled dialogue between the two South Asian rivals would be revived soon. Yet, the Indian leadership is probably conscious that despite plugging anti-Pakistan rhetoric to the maximum, its efforts to isolate Pakistan have run their course, with little success.

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