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October 22, 2019

Reviving the peace talks


October 22, 2019

Following an informal meeting between the Taliban’s Qatar office representatives and the US chief negotiator Zalmay Kahlilzad in Islamabad, both sides have shown willingness to revive the stalled peace talks.

Prior to meeting Khalilzad in Islamabad, the Taliban delegation also visited Tehran, Moscow and Beijing. In September, US President Donald Trump cancelled the meeting with the Taliban at Camp David after facing criticism from his administration for making too many concessions to the Taliban and the impression that the US had sold out the Afghan government.

Islamabad has played a key role in convincing both sides to resume negotiations. As a confidence-building measure, the Taliban have freed three Indian engineers in exchange for 11 Taliban prisoners from the Bagram airbase. In the coming days, the Taliban could also release two professors of the American University of Afghanistan, an American and an Australian, who were kidnapped in 2016 in return for Anas Haqqani, an important commander of the Haqqani Network.

Recently, at a rally in Minnesota, President Trump has signalled his willingness to return to the negotiation table to end the 18-year old war. The US also expects reduction in violence or (undeclared) ceasefire from the Taliban to formally resume talks.

The result of the Afghan presidential elections as well as the Taliban’s stance towards the new Kabul administration will be central to the final outcome of these negotiations.

Given the above, three things need close consideration. First, the venue of the renewed peace talks. So far, nine rounds of the Taliban-Khalilzad negotiations have taken place in Doha, Qatar. It is most likely that the venue of negotiations will change now. Islamabad has offered to host both sides.

Second, the Taliban will have to show more flexibility and political maturity to ensure that the post-US political order in Afghanistan brings peace and stability. Provided that both sides principally agreed to a ceasefire framework, the Taliban weakened their position by continuing with high-profile violent attacks. Prior to the cancellation of these talks, the Taliban were gaining maximum by conceding very little. Had they reached an accord with the US, they would have engaged in intra-Afghan dialogue with an embattled Kabul administration which had completed its constitutional term.

Hence, transitioning to an interim government and constitutional amendments would have been far easier. Now, the Taliban will hold intra-Afghan dialogue — if the US-Taliban deal is signed — with a new government having a five-year mandate.

In their private conversations, the Taliban have acknowledged their lack of political acumen and governance inadequacies when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001. They also accept that without international financial and diplomatic assistance Afghanistan cannot be managed. So, instead of becoming the sole rulers of an impoverished and diplomatically isolated Afghanistan, they are quite open and willing to share power with other political factions.

At the same time, the Taliban are also aware of the fact that, despite having a tactical upper hand in Afghanistan, they do not have the means and wherewithal to impose a military solution. They know that war can only be terminated through negotiations and political compromises.

Third, the US’s political priorities are changing quite rapidly. The current policies of the Trump administration are primarily motivated by the upcoming presidential elections. President Trump is keen to bring the US troops home — an election promise he made to his constituents — and win the elections. A case in point is pulling out 1,000 US troops from north-eastern Syria.

At the same time, the long-term US interests have moved away from the ‘war on terror’ (WoT) to great power competition. The American establishment considers rising China and resurgent Russia as bigger threats and challenges to its global preponderance as compared to Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS). Moreover, the US believes that both IS and Al-Qaeda have been militarily defeated. So, the US view of Afghanistan has changed fundamentally. Rather than seeing Afghanistan through the narrow lens of terrorism, now the US considers threat of terrorism in Afghanistan as a by-product of the prolonged conflict.

If the Taliban do not show political maturity and carve out a political space for themselves in Afghanistan’s political structure, the US will withdraw from Afghanistan with or without a peace deal. Whether the US responsibly withdraws from Afghanistan that results in a power-sharing through a peace deal, or unilaterally withdraws without a deal from Afghanistan (as it did in the late 1980s) plunging Afghanistan into anarchy depends on how the Taliban approach the situation from this point onwards.

At this juncture, Afghanistan is at a cross-roads and broadly three scenarios emerge from the current situation. If the power transition is peaceful and the US-Taliban ceasefire is signed, it will pave the way for power-sharing and sustainable peace and stability. On the contrary, an unsuccessful power-transition resulting in election disputes and breakdown of peace negotiations will trigger a US withdrawal hastening the civil war.

Finally, a successful power-transition but unsuccessful talks will perpetuate the current status quo. In other words: continuation of the strategic deadlock where the Taliban will not gain enough to impose a military solution, while Kabul will not concede too much to lose control of the government.

All of the above-mentioned outcomes have direct and profound implications for Pakistan’s internal stability and regional interests. If the talks break down and a peace deal is not reached, the US will conveniently scapegoat Pakistan for its own policy failures in Afghanistan. On the other hand, if the US-Taliban ceasefire agreement is reached, it will be a job half-done for Pakistan.

Islamabad will have to work with its regional allies to ensure that a workable and viable power-sharing arrangement is reached between Kabul and the Taliban. Stabilizing Afghanistan will allow Pakistan to focus on a multitude of challenges internally and the worsening situation in Kashmir.

The author is a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore.

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