Afghanistan: Peace talks & hiccups


Dr Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
ZALMAY Khalilzad’s recent meetings in Doha and Beijing germinated optimism about reaching a peace deal among the Afghan factions and the United States before the end of this year. Though there was significant progress in the recent meeting in Doha and Beijing, yet there are still some hiccups, which can derail the entire process. Is the Afghan peace process gradually heading towards its logical conclusion? Nevertheless, both sides described the 8th round that ended on July 9 as the ‘most productive.’ Qatar and Germany succeeded in starting intra-Afghan interaction. Sixteen Taliban and 60 Afghan representatives comprising delegates from political parties, government officials and civil society organizations participated in the peace dialogue held in the Qatari capital Doha. Afghan Taliban accepted the participation of the Afghan government’s representatives in their personal/private capacity. Though it is a minor concession by the Taliban, yet a significant confidence-building measure. Besides, warring sides agreed to unconditional release of old, disabled, and sick prisoners and not to attack institutions such as hospitals and schools, as well as national infrastructure such as hydro-electric dams. These understandings are encouraging arrangements for an eventual cease-fire, which is a prerequisite for the end of 18 years war in the country and also the withdrawal of NATO and American troops from Afghanistan.
The United States, Russia, China and Pakistan talks held in Beijing on July 10 and 11 were equally promising. They called on the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire and direct dialogue with the Kabul government. On July 12, the US State Department stated, “encouraged all parties to take steps to reduce violence leading to a comprehensive and permanent cease-fire that starts with intra-Afghan negotiations.” The substantive response of Taliban on the cease-fire and agreement on a “road map for peace” are awaited. There are a few hiccups, which alarms about the probability of continuity of asymmetrical warfare in Afghanistan. Presently, the Taliban seem disinclined to change their policy to negotiate and fight at the same time. They are not prepared to accept the cease-fire immediately. Simultaneously, the Taliban are willing to continue the dialogue process. Likewise, Americans are also talking and fighting with the Afghan Taliban. Ironically, both sides were meeting in Doha and striking on each other in Afghanistan. Many civilians killed. For how long both sides will sustain the simultaneous fight-and-talk policy?
Second, Afghanistan is a war-torn country. From 1979, Afghans have been in a state of war, which have immensely affected their economy and social values. Warlords, with the support of their militias, have been roaming in the country. One of the biggest challenges would be to rehabilitate and streamline these warriors. Realistically, it would be difficult to change the mindset of the local militias affiliated with the country’s powerful warlords. The anarchical situation in the country is beneficial for the durability of warlords’ political clout and illegal economic activities. Hence, they can spoil the peace process. Third, many Ghani government officials are not satisfied with the current nature of the peace process. They have been openly expressing their reservations on the dialogue process. They accused Khalilzad as acting like a ‘viceroy.’ They believe that excluding President Ghani’s representatives from peace negotiations with the Taliban on the behest of the latter delegitimized the Kabul government.
Fourth, Afghanistan’s domestic politics remains a competing ground for various national and international powerbrokers. There are some Afghan ethnic groups, which are in an advantageous position due to the presence of US and NATO troops. Moreover, the Russians and Chinese have been taking a keen interest in the domestic affairs of the country. They have direct contacts with both the Afghan government and the Taliban. Similarly, Iran and Pakistan are maintaining close connections with the Government and Taliban. Pakistan has facilitated in commencing the dialogue process between the United States and the Afghan Taliban. The increasing role of Pakistan in the Afghanistan affairs agitates India.
Fifth, one of the essential demands of the Americans is that Taliban guarantee that the transnationalism terrorist groups will not use Afghanistan territory as a sanctuary and launching pad against the other countries. In the present situation, the Taliban can only promise. However, it is debatable whether practically they will be able to get rid off Al-Qaeda remnants and increasing influence of Daesh in the country. Sixth, the Afghan Taliban are insisting on the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops. But the American Military Establishment is not prepared to leave Afghanistan. Last week, Gen Mark Milley, President Donald Trump’s nominee for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued against pulling out American troops from Afghanistan in haste in his Congressional hearing. He said, “I think it is slow; it’s painful; it’s hard — I spent a lot of my life in Afghanistan — but I also think it’s necessary.” To conclude, the continuity of a peace dialogue in Doha is a promising engagement between Afghan Taliban and the United States. However, without tangible outcome, it is futile.
— The writer is Professor, School of Politics and International Relations and author of India’s Surgical Strike Stratagem: Brinkmanship and Response.