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June 16, 2020

The Afghan quicksand


June 16, 2020

Accompanied by the DG ISI and Pakistan’s special envoy for Afghanistan, COAS General Bajwa’s unannounced visit to Kabul last week was the first high-profile visit by any Pakistani civil or military leader particularly after the US-Taliban peace deal signed on February 29 in Doha.

This trip also came on the heels of a landmark power-sharing agreement between President Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah that ended the months-old political tussle between the two top contending rivals who staked claims to power after the Afghan presidential elections in September last year.

The visit was aimed at expressing Pakistan’s unstinted support for an intra-Afghan peace and reconciliation dialogue and to discuss steps required to accelerate the process for the start of a much-awaited dialogue on which hinges the future of peace in Afghanistan.

The intra-Afghan dialogue is an essential plank of the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan that originally set the deadline of March 10 for the resumption of talks between the Afghan parties, and which got delayed due to failure of the Ghani government to release 5000 Taliban prisoners demanded by the Taliban as a precondition. Another factor impeding the start of the dialogue was a political feud between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.

While the peace agreement listed the reduction in violence as a facilitating factor and a significant confidence-building measure, a permanent ceasefire was to be included in the intra-Afghan talks. However, the perpetuation of violence in the ensuing weeks vitiated the environment with the Ghani government and the Taliban holding each other responsible for the acts of violence.

The attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul and a funeral gathering on May 24 was an unprecedented incident even from Afghanistan’s standards. The ghastly attack left the world shocked as infants and women were mercilessly mowed down. It also nudged President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to rush for a power-sharing deal to put up a united front. As per the details of the deal, Ghani got the undisputed presidency whereas Abdullah was appointed the head of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation.

The Taliban’s announcement of a three-day ceasefire during the led to President Ghani’s announcement of releasing 2000 more prisoners, thus paving the way for getting the dialogue started.

The visit of the Pakistani military leadership to Kabul underscores the seriousness that Islamabad attaches to the intra-Afghan dialogue that has the potential to bring the 18-year old conflict to an end and put the war-torn country on the path of peace and reconciliation.

The Afghan leadership appreciated Pakistan’s constructive role to facilitate dialogue, something that is quite unusual given the history of strained relations the Ghani government has had with Islamabad. Pakistan’s newly appointed envoy for Afghanistan Sadiq Khan also described the discussions in Kabul as ‘substantive’, indicating a developing synergy of thought on the way forward between the neighbours.

The fact that the unexpected visit to Kabul came soon US Special Envoy for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad’s meetings in Rawalpindi and Doha reflects an agreement among the stakeholders on some of the initial steps to get the process going.

Subsequent to the signing of the historic peace deal in Doha, one of the major objections was that the main parties to the conflict often operate at cross purposes and that the gaps in their thinking on how things should be settled and what the post-withdrawal political arrangement should look like could scuttle the entire process before it could reach a meaningful conclusion. This objection, informed by the decades-old experience of the conflict, was not without basis.

One of the plausible explanations for a forward movement on the dialogue front appears to be weariness of the Trump Administration with the absence of progress on conversations among the Afghan parties and his administration’s consequent decision to pull out with or without the Afghan dialogue reaching a conclusion. The alternative to a negotiated end to the Afghan conflict appears to be a complete chaos and the beginning of yet another dark night, a prospect too scary to be pondered.

Today’s Afghanistan is a hotbed of deep-rooted, multilayered violence spawned by multiple organizations that have tried to cash in on a state of continuous chaos and conflict. The Islamic State is mainly responsible for much of the gruesome violence that the country has suffered in the last couple of years. It has successfully exploited the situation and emerged as a capable fighting group, staking a claim to the leadership of transnational Jihadi outfits.

A permanent state of chaos suits the IS for the implementation of its strategic objectives. After being pushed out of much of Syria and Iraq in a visibly depleted condition, it has made Afghanistan the centre of its actions from where to continue with its Jihadi project.

The beginning of an intra-Afghan dialogue per se does not guarantee anything unless the stakeholders are aware of the onerous responsibility on their shoulders and demonstrate compromise and flexibility in their approach to arrive at a solution that is in the best interest of the Afghans.

By agreeing to talk to the Ghani government, the Taliban have come down from their stated maximalist position of not talking to it at all. Likewise, President Ghani has consistently been opposed to the US’ direct engagement with the Taliban. He demanded of the Taliban to accept the Afghan constitution as a precondition for any kind of engagement with it.

It appears that all parties involved understand the importance of the stakes involved and the costs associated with inaction and failure. The lessons from the mistakes of the past can stop the dialogue process from floundering.

As they say, the devil lies in the details. Moving forward, the sincerity and commitment of the parties will be put to a rigorous test while settling the nitty-gritty of the post-withdrawal political future of Afghanistan. In any event, the well-being and interest of the people of Afghanistan must be a guiding principle.

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Amanat222