Afghan imbroglio

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M Ziauddin

One is still at a loss to figure out the actual reason behind US President Donald Trump’s abrupt
termination of the Afghan peace process. Trump had declared the process ‘dead’ just when it had appeared to have reached the point when signatures of the negotiating parties were to be affixed on an accord, presumably, heralding the end of the 18-year long war with no victory in sight for the US and the Afghan Taliban gaining ground with the passage of each day. The finalization of the accord was to have taken place at the historic Camp David with representatives of both, the Afghan Taliban and Kabul government attending.
That Trump was provoked to do so, as he said, because of the loss of one American soldier’s life in an attack by Afghan Taliban just about when he was all set to issue invitations to the two warring Afghan factions for the Camp David rendezvous, had sounded more like a lame excuse. Totally unconvincing. Perhaps he was forced to abandon the process by the more powerful American establishment, especially Pentagon and the State Department. In fact, it had appeared from the very word go that it was against the advice of the military -led American establishment, that the President had decided to initiate the peace accord facilitating US troops withdrawal before the commencement his campaign for re-election.
The nine rounds of negotiations between Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Baradar, second-in-command to the chief, the late Mullah Omar and Trump’s representative Zalmay Khalil had continued without break while the former kept up the pressure on both the residual US troops of some 15,000 personnel as well as on the 450,000 strong Kabul government troops killing and capturing more and more territory and holding, by the time the peace process started, its sway over more than 75% of Afghanistan.
Afghan Taliban had not only refused to stop their armed campaign while they were negotiating a peaceful withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, they were also consistently refusing to talk to Kabul government making it very clear as to who would replace the occupying forces once they were withdrawn. As the negotiations progressed, it almost appeared as if the US was all set to abandon the Kabul government and decamp, in what appeared to be a replay of US troops fleeing from Vietnam as the Vietcong took over the country from an Army that was defeated fair and square in the war.
The unexpected decision of President Trump to abandon the peace process seemingly for good had dealt Pakistan a shocking jolt as it was not taken into confidence before taking what to Islamabad appeared to be fateful decision despite the fact that Pakistan had played a pivotal role in getting the Afghan Taliban to agree to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal of the US troop. The most decisive development in the process had been persuading Mullah Baradar who was in the protective custody of Pakistan, to agree to lead the talks on behalf of Afghan Taliban. The forty-year long war in the neighbouring Afghanistan had affected Pakistan the most. In fact, we had been the unwilling proxy partners of one or the other warring factions in that country and twice we had been part-taking in the war as the US proxy. In the process we have lost thousands of our civilians as well as security personnel and also suffered loss of billions of dollars.
While we did all that the free-world had wanted us to do, while trying at the same time to secure our sovereignty from regional challenges, we were accused of playing a double game and continuously pressured to do more by the US. Ironically, on the one hand we were being asked to kill and capture the leading Afghan Taliban, the Haqqanis who had taken refuge in our tribal belt and on the other the US expected us to bring the same people to negotiating table. We suffered from so much of trust deficit in Washington and Kabul that the two had begun using India to trap Islamabad into a two-front situation to force us to give up a ‘double game’ that we were not playing.
So, it appeared like a 180- degree reversal in the situation—a pleasant one for Pakistan— when Trump one fine morning without any prior warning to Pakistan or even perhaps to his own people, decided to start negotiations with Afghan Taliban and sent his emissary Zalmay Khalilzad to Doha, Qatar and asked us for help. For us it was a god-sent opportunity to join hands with the sole super power of the world once again, but this time not to fight its wars but to assist it in withdrawing its troops from seemingly an unending war in return for which the US was prepared to let the Afghans govern themselves, the way they wanted.
That is exactly what Pakistan had also wanted all along but not before an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned settlement for lasting peace in Afghanistan which turned during the last 40 years into a graveyard of Afghans themselves from being a graveyard of empires—the British empire, the Soviet empire and now a graveyard-in- the-making—the American empire.The arrival of both Zalmay Khalilzad and Afghan Taliban delegation in Islamabad last week has revived the hope that perhaps, the two sides—the US and Afghan Taliban—have decided to resume negotiation from where they had left off. Perhaps Pakistan had convinced President Trump that this time around the Afghan Taliban would be more amenable to the US demands for a pause in the war until the finalization of the accord and withdrawal of US troops as well as to meet between the rulers in Kabul and decide on how to go about forming the government in Kabul without any further bloodshed.
The biggest hurdle in the way of a quick intra-Afghan peaceful settlement would be the current Constitution of Afghanistan which Afghan Taliban completely reject. So, before the withdrawal the two Afghan factions would have to agree to settle the issue amicably and with a lot of give-and-take while amending the Constitution to suit all Afghans for the time being. It would certainly be a very difficult thing to accomplish.
But one is sure the Afghan Taliban know what would be in store for them in case they failed to join an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace settlement. The worst case scenario would be the US would delay troop withdrawal and perhaps out of pique, President Trump might decide to send more troops and escalate the war which is what Pentagon and State Department have been advising the President all along.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.

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