Afghanistan—back to square one?

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M Ziauddin

It took almost one whole year and nine rounds of talks for a deal to be finalised between the Afghan Taliban and the US representative Zalmay Khalilzad. But with only signatures of the two sides remaining to be affixed on the deal and that too in Camp David with a lot of pomp and show and fanfare, it was thrown out of the window by US President Donald Trump calling it a dead deal. As of today nobody knows whether the deal is dead for good or there is a possibility of the two sides returning to Doha before Trump gets into gear to face re-election; the process is expected to begin in right earnest in the next three months. Pakistan certainly wants the negotiations to be resumed at the earliest and has appealed to the two sides to reconsider their respective positions on the points that needed to be sorted out. With a final settlement in Afghanistan and peace returning to the North-Western neighbour Pakistan had hoped to redeploy its troops from around the Durand Line to the Eastern borders which has become very volatile lately.
That is perhaps one of the major reasons why Pakistan went out of its way to facilitate the start of Doha talks. One does not have all the details of exactly what role did Pakistan play in the facilitation process. But considering Pakistani security agencies’ access to the Afghan Taliban it is perhaps safe to assume that we played some crucial role in getting the top Afghan Taliban leaders to listen to at least what Zalmay Khalilzad wanted to talk about and see what did the US want to achieve by talking peace after having waged the war for 18 long years. Pakistan perhaps has also facilitated the travel arrangements of top leaders including that of Mulla Brather, the second-in-command of Afghan Taliban after the late Mullah Omar.
Pakistan’s earnest participation in facilitating the talks had quickly paid immense dividends as Islamabad travelled fast from ‘friendless in Washington’ to the position of being openly wooed by the US President. So much so that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was invited to the White House for detailed talks on how best to move on Afghanistan. On this occasion President Trump, out of the blue, offered to mediate between India and Pakistan saying that he was making the offer at the behest of Prime Minister Modi. Though the Indian foreign office denied the claim but Modi himself did not and the US officials stuck to the boss’ version of Trump-Modi discussion. Nevertheless, Trump has repeated the offer even after he had called off the Afghan Taliban deal. But as of today with the Kashmir issue suddenly taking the centre-stage Pakistan finds itself focusing more on its Eastern borders. However, Islamabad is likely also to continue its efforts to get the US and Taliban resume peace talks from where they had left off last week as soon as possible because without a peace settlement in Afghanistan and Kashmir issue getting heated up, it would be too tough for Pakistan to face a two-front situation and that too when its economy is in a bad shape.
Both India and Kabul would be very happy at the sudden reversal in the peace talks process because neither of the two were given a seat in the process. President Ashraf Ghani was most unhappy because the Taliban had kept refusing to accept him as a legitimate representative of Kabul. And India was very angry at being left out completely. As international talks with the Taliban leadership gained momentum, India’s foreign policy establishment had gone through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. After the initial denial that several countries, including the U.S., Russia, U.A.E., Qatar and Saudi Arabia, were engaging with Pakistan in order to bring senior Taliban leaders to the table in late 2017, India protested against being cut out of the talks. It then negotiated to join them, followed by expressions of deep misgiving over where the talks would lead. And finally this had given way to acceptance that the talks had not only progressed, but were being given priority over every other process in Afghanistan. So, when Trump declared the deal as dead, New Delhi was in cloud nine.
So far no one seems to have been able to fathom why Trump called off the talks when they had almost reached a positive finale. There was not the slightest hint all through the nine rounds of negotiations that the US President was in any way not satisfied with the progress of the talks. In fact, he was pursuing the talks against the advice of his Secretary of State Pompeo and the National Security Advisor, John Bolton (now dismissed) as well as in service and retired generals plus diplomats who had served in Afghanistan. All through the year-long engagement at Doha, the Taliban had not stopped their attacks on both the US troops and the Kabul’s army. Not only that. They had kept adding to their gains on the ground leaving only patches estimated to be no more than 30 per cent of the land under the control of President Ashraf Ghani’s government. This very fact that the US had continued to pursue the talks despite the refusal of the Taliban to stop their brutal terror attacks which were taking tolls of hundreds of Afghans, both civilian and those in uniform was to many seemed like a puzzle. And the abrupt discontinuation at the last minute appeared even more puzzling. But what was even more puzzling, was the seeming desire of President Trump to bring the US boots back from Afghanistan, a country which borders two of its declared foes—China and Iran— with which Washington has a number of unsettled and serious disputes. In fact, it has started looking at China as a threat to its global hegemony. Indeed, both China and Russia would like to see the end of Taliban at the earliest as both would not like to see a victorious Taliban in power in Kabul even in a coalition; a development that could prove an unnecessary irritant to the two countries as both have uneasy relations with their own Muslim minorities which could get out of hand, if instigated and inspired by the Taliban in control in Kabul.
Historically Afghanistan has the distinction of being known as the graveyard of the empires. But then in the last 40 years this country has virtually turned into the graveyard of Afghans themselves. So, for the sake of their own people and the people of the region one ardently hopes that better sense would prevail among Afghan Taliban leadership and they would finally give up their terrorism and reach a final peace settlement with the US.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.