Akbar Jan Marwat
UMPTEEN rounds of talks have taken place between different players at various venues to bring peace to war-ravaged Afghanistan. Peace in Afghanistan has, however, been elusive till date. It seems that one of the most serious and comprehensive efforts is currently in progress to bring peace to the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan. Three rounds of talks between the Afghan Taliban and the US were held in Doha, Qatar between July and October. The venue was then moved to the UAE for further talks from December 17. The change of venue was to facilitate the presence of Saudi Arabia and UAE in the peace talks. An important aspect of these recent talks was that, Afghan Taliban were talking directly to the Americans. The Afghan Taliban had earlier refused to talk to the Afghan government, which it had declared powerless, and not in a position to make any decision. Pakistan also acted as a major facilitator in making the peace talks in UAE successful. It is generally believed that Pakistan played a major role in the peace initiative by bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table and facilitating its interaction with the Americans in Abu Dhabi. Any major breakthrough may not have been achieved in the talks in Abu Dhabi, but serious efforts were certainly made towards peace in Afghanistan. The UAE government even issued a very sanguine but vague statement saying that the negotiations were moving in the right direction, and that hopefully some concrete decisions could be taken in the next round of talks, also to be held in Abu Dhabi.
Senior Afghan born, US diplomat Zalmay Khalizad also seemed optimistic about the talks held in Abu Dhabi. He stated that he would like to see road-map for peace in Afghanistan take shape, before Afghanistan’s presidential election due to be held on April 20, 2019. In order to keep all his allies in the loop, Mr Khalizad briefed Pakistani officials including the Army Chief, Gen Bajwa about the talks in Abu Dhabi. From Pakistan Khalizad flew to Kabul, to update the Afghan Government on the talks. The national unity government of Afghanistan was left out of negotiations in Abu Dhabi in spite of its desire to participate in the talks. This was because the Afghan Taliban refused to speak to the Afghan Government, which the Taliban consider a mere dummy. The Afghan unity government had even sent a small delegation to Abu Dhabi, with the outside chance, that the Americans may be able to persuade the Taliban for a meeting with the Afghan delegation. Such a meeting did not, however, take place much to the chagrin of the Afghan unity government.
A very significant, though abrupt, development that took place while the talks were in progress was: President Trump’s sudden announcement of unilaterally drawing down the American troops’ presence in Afghanistan from 14000 to 7000. President Trump’s announcement took both his allies and his adversaries by surprise. The US’s Defence Secretary James Mattis, who was considered the main architect of Trump’s South Asia Policy, resigned in protest. Trump’s announcement is indeed of monumental significance, and it will change the calculus of power on the ground, with significant effect on regional peace. In any event, this announcement of withdrawal of 7000 American troops is in line with Afghan Taliban’s demand for complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan before any meaningful negotiation can take place.
There are two contradictory views about the US decision of troops’ drawdown in Afghanistan in the diplomatic community: 1, Some foreign policy experts believe that the US cannot win the war militarily in Afghanistan. Thus there is no need to keep more troops there. It is also asserted that as the US has also started a process of direct negotiation with Afghan Taliban, the drawdown decision of US troops could only act as a confidence building measure, as that is what the Afghan Taliban also want. The contending view among scholars is that by announcing a troop drawdown, the US is surrendering any leverage that it may have in peace talks. The unilateral drawdown may strengthen the Jihadist narrative of defeating another super-power after the Soviet Union was defeated. It is asserted that the Taliban may consider the withdrawal as a victory of sorts, and stick to their maximalist position during the peace talks. In summation it can be said that all these peace talks being held at different venues without concrete results, are becoming tiresome. But the fact remains that peace can only be brought to Afghanistan through talks and not through military means. Similarly, a phased withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan coinciding with political settlement will hopefully lead to stabilization, while a sudden pullout without sustainable peace deal may further contribute towards a civil war.
—The writer is a former Health Minister, Govt of KP, based in Islamabad.