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Peace prospects for Afghanistan?

November 30, 2019

A high-profile prisoner exchange has given a new lease of life to the resuscitating peace process in Afghanistan. The moment has also emerged as a significant move in US foreign policy towards the region.

But, as expected, it has ended up belittling the Afghan government, yet again. After all, Kabul only played an observer role as Taliban prisoners Anas Haqqani, Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Abdul Rashid flew from Bagram to Doha. Or American professor Kevin King and his Australian Colleague Timothy Weeks were subsequently released.

Both professors of American University Kabul were abducted by the Haqqani group in 2016. The group has long been blamed for violence against the Afghan government and coalition forces alike. Yet, Anas Haqqani – the son of the creator of the group – was allowed to leave for Doha.

His release speaks volume about the weak negotiating position of Washington. Since 2001, be it Bush or Obama, if any American president had ever asked Pakistan to ‘do more’, it only meant taking stricter action against the Haqqani Network.

Thanks to his foreign policy faux pas, President Trump reduced himself to giving in to the Afghan Taliban’s demand and at the same time thanking Prime Minister Imran Khan for Pakistan’s role in facilitating the prisoner exchange.

Trump, even otherwise, was left with little options. He was responsible for blowing up the peace deal that Ambassador Khalilzad had tirelessly negotiated with the Taliban. That too, for an attack that killed an American soldier in a country where the US has lost nearly 2,400 soldiers.

So Trump had to clean the mess himself. It is yet to establish who stopped Trump, but he kept his Twitter trolling in control when the Taliban attacked the wagon of a Canadian security company the day prisoners were being exchanged. Or even a week later, when the militants shot down a Chinook helicopter, leaving at least two American servicemen dead.

This mature approach signalled Trump’s seriousness. It has also reopened the doors for signing the agreement. The earlier fateful draft was not made public. The world will hardly know how far the new agreement is more tilted to fulfil the demands of the Taliban.

The fact is that the US administration’s reckless behaviour has strengthened the Afghan Taliban. And Trump’s attitude of keeping everything about the Afghan issue under wraps has estranged both Democrats and Republicans.

The result has been President Trump losing the liberty of making independent decisions about the peace process. The Congress that had long complained about not being taken into confidence has assumed reigning leading role. A bipartisan bill has empowered it with oversight power.

The Trump administration is now bound to submit final agreement with the Taliban to the Congress. The US secretary of state will also have to assure the body that the Taliban and Haqqani Network have broken ties with Al-Qaeda.

The region woould have taken a sigh of relief had the Congress added some assurances against Daesh. Over the last few years, the terrorist organization has spread its tentacles. And, despite claims of victory against Daesh by the Ghani government, it is posing a danger not only to Afghanistan but also to Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and the ex-Soviet states.

But it is encouraging that Washington has at least recognized that lasting peace can only be achieved by taking at least Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad on board. By attending the four-party talks in Moscow, Ambassador Khalilzad has secured a consensus to promote a negotiated settlement.

Even, otherwise, the US has lost monopoly on dialogue. When Trump abruptly called off talks in September, the Taliban enjoyed the warmth elsewhere. Their delegation met Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulove and his Chinese counterpart in Beijing Deng Xijun to discuss the way forward. The Taliban know that a part of the One Belt One Road initiative may play a pivotal role in boosting Afghan economy and create much needed jobs. At the same time, Russia along with the ex-soviet states can help build some infrastructure.

Raising the eyebrows of the Trump administration, the Taliban even landed in Tehran. Iran has developed ties with the militants after finding itself encircled by pro-American elements in the region. Iran also critically views the American policy of pick and choose when it comes to peace-making efforts with warring groups in Afghanistan. And, amid accusations of meddling, it is flooding back hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban delegation also enjoyed a stay in Islamabad. To the benefit of the United States, Pakistan helped resume their direct interaction with Ambassador Khalilzad. This facilitation has brought both Islamabad and Washington towards a new level of understanding. And Pakistan has come back in the game with much more recognition.

It’s time to rush for a peace deal, followed by an intra-Afghan dialogue that must culminate in a wider agreement. Only that can ensure solid steps for silencing the guns. The ceasefire can be observed zone by zone or city by city. In any case, there should be guarantees that intense fighting to dominate other regions does not ensue.

To achieve sustainable peace, an implementable strategy must also be devised to socially and economically integrate the Taliban. In 18 years, the US has failed to get rid of them or evolve some political groups that could challenge them.

Without a role, the unintegrated 150,000 Taliban will remain a threat to the security of the county. They are already counting the days for the US withdrawal. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko has rightly observed that “If there is ever to be a true, sustainable peace in Afghanistan, reintegration of the Taliban and other combatants will be a necessary component of that process.”

Where will this integration lead to? Can it serve as the basis for devising a strategy to form a government representing all ethnicities?

The highly disputed presidential elections have only aborted the democratic process in Afghanistan. Kabul has only made a mockery of itself by holding an exercise where 900,000 votes are missing and another hundred thousand eliminated for one reason or another.

The world is amazed that hatching votes for two months hasn’t produced a president in that country. This requires the US and regional powers to be serious as the Afghans have suffered enough.

The unfortunate fact is no one is ready to give power to the people. The ones who can are supporting those which serve them well. It’s a recipe for a long-term bloodshed.

So, the longest military operation in American history may end next year. But, prospects of viable peace will remain elusive.

The writer is a senior journalistassociated with Geo News.

Email: nasim.haider@geo.tv

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