THE signing of peace agreement between US and Taliban on 29 February 2020 after an arduous and protracted negotiations did raise hopes of peace returning to Afghanistan after four decades of strife and the US making an honourable exit from that country. The agreement stipulated that within the first 135 days of the deal US will reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 8600 with allies also drawing down their forces proportionately; Taliban will not allow Al-Qaeda or any other extremist group to operate in the areas they control; the US will lift sanctions against the Taliban and also work with UN to have the sanctions removed imposed against them by it and there will be a swap of some 5000 Taliban prisoners and 1000 Afghan security forces prisoners held by either side respectively paving the way for intra-Afghan dialogue proposed to begin from 10 March.
But as is said concluding agreements on resolving conflicts, as is evident by history, does not necessarily guarantee peaceful end to them. Agreements are only the first step in that direction. The most important aspect is the implementation of the agreement in letter and spirit. Unfortunately the ink of the agreement had hardly dried when the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made a mind-boggling statement that the Afghan Government had made no commitment to free Taliban prisoners as included in the US-Taliban deal, however it could be discussed in intra-Afghan talks. Reacting to this contention the Taliban took the position that they would not engage in a dialogue with the Afghan Government as per agreement unless the Afghan Government honoured the commitment given by US in the signed deal.
The stalemate on the issue spurred string of attacks on the Afghan security forces by Taliban. The refusal regarding prisoners swap by the Afghan President was really very perplexing in view of the fact that Zalmay Khalilzad who was negotiating the deal with Taliban met with the Afghan President several times during the on-going dialogue with the purpose of taking him into confidence on the progress of talks. He also met him before he went to Doha to sign the deal. The US could not have included the clause regarding exchange of prisoners without obtaining the consent of the Afghan President. If they did not then it was a grave mistake on their part to take things for granted. And if President Ghani backtracked after agreeing with the US for inclusion of that clause in the agreement, then he has played the role of spoiler which can have very severe repercussions and even scuttle the progress made so far to extricate Afghanistan out of the decades old conflict.
President Ghani made yet another untenable statement while addressing a gathering in Nangarhar province asking Taliban to break ties with Pakistan if they wanted the release of their prisoners. He reportedly said, “If the Taliban have set release of their prisoners as a condition for intra-Afghan dialogue talks, we also have conditions; they should tell me when are they going to break ties with Pakistan.” The reality is that the dialogue between the US and Taliban could not have been possible without Pakistan playing the role of a facilitator. It has been repeatedly acknowledged and appreciated by President Trump who soon after assuming power accused Pakistan of a duplicitous role in the Afghan conflict and stopped US assistance to her. He even announced a policy on South Asia and Afghanistan premised on use of force to have his way in ending the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan rightly rejected the use of force to resolve the festering conflict in Afghanistan after having failed to achieve any success through barrel of the gun and asserted that it could only be terminated through dialogue with greater focus on Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation. It was indeed a matter of great satisfaction that President Trump soon saw merit in the position taken by Pakistan and even requested her to play a facilitating role in orchestrating an interface between the US and the Taliban.
Pakistan has not only been instrumental to the signing of the agreement between US and Taliban but it has also been making sincere efforts to promote reconciliation within Afghanistan at bilateral and multilateral forums. Firming up a consensus on the future of Afghanistan through intra-Afghan dialogue is a test of the ability of the Afghan leaders to rise to the occasion and orchestrate a way forward. Whether they will be able to grab this opportunity will depend on removal of mutual mistrust and willingness to work together casting off the past hangovers. No doubt it will be an arduous undertaking but given the will nothing is impossible.
President Donald Trump has given a commitment to the American people to pull out of Afghanistan and the fulfillment of that promise could be crucial to his chances of re-election. He seems serious and committed in doing that and allowing the Afghan leaders to sort it out between themselves. The Afghan leaders must not forget that he has also hinted on different occasions to affect the pull-out from Afghanistan with or without a deal. Now that a deal has been struck between US and Taliban it is incumbent upon the Afghan leaders to take the process to its logical end, failing which the country could re-plunge into a never ending turmoil. It is however encouraging to note that the US is making strenuous efforts to salvage the agreement by persuading the Afghan President and his rival Abdullah Abdullah to resolve their mutual differences and work collectively to sort out issues with Taliban as envisaged in the deal. Its special negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad is talking to the stakeholders including Pakistan to help in achieving the objective. It is a now or never situation and the Afghan leaders must not fail to avail this opportunity.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.