Ceasefire in Afghanistan: Mirage or breakthrough

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Shahid M Amin

FINALLY, there is some good news regarding peace in Afghanistan. Both the Kabul government and Afghan Taliban have announced a temporary ceasefire for three days of Eid, in mid-June 2018. The US/NATO forces have announced that they too would observe the ceasefire. The sequential developments were that a meeting of Islamic religious leaders first issued a fatwa against suicide bombings, after a bombing by the “Islamic State” (IS) that killed 14 people near the venue of their peace conference. The Ulema also recommended a ceasefire with the Taliban, which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani endorsed. On June 7, Ghani announced an unconditional ceasefire lasting till June 20 in fighting with Taliban, while excluding other militant groups such as the IS. Next, the US Forces in Afghanistan said in a statement that they will also “honour” the ceasefire, while excluding the IS and other groups. General John Nicholson, head of the US and NATO forces, said “we will adhere to the wishes of Afghanistan for the country to enjoy a peaceful end to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and support the search for an end to the conflict”.
However, the most dramatic announcement came from the Taliban. For the first time, since their resistance began in 2001, the Taliban announced a ceasefire for three days of Eid for the Afghan government forces, but excluded foreign (i.e. US/NATO) forces from the ceasefire, against which operations would continue. They also said that they would defend themselves against any attack. The spokesman for President Ghani welcomed the Taliban announcement and hoped it could lead to lasting peace. Omar Zakhilwal, Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan, described the Taliban decision as an “important step towards prospects for peace” and expressed hope that the rest of the year would be declared as Afghan Eid.
It is being speculated that the US and Pakistan used their influence, respectively with the Afghan Government and with the Taliban, to persuade each to declare a temporary ceasefire. Two high-level telephone conversations took place this week between the US and Pakistan governments. On June 6, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had his first conversation with army chief General Qamar Bajwa in which they discussed ways to advance bilateral relations. A spokesman of the US State Department said they also discussed “the need for political reconciliation in Afghanistan, and the importance of targeting all militant and terrorist groups in South Asia without distinction.” The spokesman did not use the oft-repeated US terminology of “terrorist groups based in Pakistan including the Haqqani network”. Pakistani officials called the discussion “positive and productive.” The second conversation took place on June 7 when Vice President Mike Pence called Caretaker Prime Minister Nasir ul-Mulk to congratulate him on assuming office and conveyed “good wishes” from President Trump. An official statement said that Mulk and Pence had “agreed upon the importance of strengthening bilateral relations as well as pursuing the common objective of achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan”.
It was notable that two days before Pompeo spoke to Bajwa, the Pakistan army spokesman Gen. Ghafoor said that the Pakistan army had offered to use “whatever leverage” Islamabad has to try to get the Taliban to the negotiating table for peacefully terminating the war.” He said significantly that Pakistan would still like US forces to succeed and go back from Afghanistan “with a notion of victory”. He expressed the view that the goal was achievable only through political means, because “neither side is in a position to win the war on the battlefield. The Afghan Taliban cannot conquer Kabul militarily, but no force can eliminate all of them either, to bring peace to Afghanistan. So, there has to be a midway to achieve a political reconciliation acceptable to all sides.”
After months of tension, the US now appears to be easing public pressure on Pakistan in a bid to encourage it to help promote peace and reconciliation with Taliban and bring an end to the war in Afghanistan. Lisa Curtis, the top US official dealing with Pakistan, said on June 9 that a key component to catalyzing a peace process is ensuring that Pakistan also stays engaged. Official sources in Washington said that USA and Pakistan had worked together in arranging a temporary ceasefire in Afghanistan, hoping that it would jump-start the Afghan reconciliation process. An official said that Washington was pursuing “multiple lines of effort” for bringing peace to Afghanistan and an important component of that effort was to ensure that Pakistan played a “constructive role” in it. Lisa Curtis confirmed that “we have asked for Pakistan’s assistance in facilitating a peace process.” She admitted that “’we have sought to understand Pakistan’s own core security concerns and ensure that its interests are taken into account in any peace process.”
The improvement in bilateral ties is due to the patient diplomacy followed by Pakistan in the past few months. An important headway was made when Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi visited Kabul on April 6, 2018. Discussions at the level of NSAs and Foreign Secretary have no doubt been helpful. Pakistan seems to have made headway in persuading the US to understand its point of view including its core security concerns in the context of Afghanistan. Crude arm-twisting will not work, as the US needs Pakistan’s help to extricate itself from the quagmire in Afghanistan. It is equally in Pakistan’s national interest to secure peace and stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan also cannot afford an antagonistic relationship with USA, which will only add to the many political and economic challenges that it faces at the present time.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.

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