PAKISTAN has begun its diplomatic efforts to bring the dysfunctional Taliban-US peace talks back on track, fearing that an absence of negotiated settlement would trigger a new phase of civil war. After months of talks in Doha, two sides had agreed to a draft accord that would have seen over 5,000 US troops withdrawn from Afghanistan alongside vacation of five military bases within 135 days, in exchange for security guarantees from Taliban. However, the deal, intended as a preliminary step to a wider peace agreement, faced heavy criticism from the Afghan government, which was shut out of the talks. Just short of the finish American and European media came up with a whole range of anti-Deal argument urging President Donald Trump to walk away from the peace process. Nevertheless, it is not the first time that Americans have walked away from such processes at culmination stage—typical ugly American continues to call the shots. There is a feeling in Pakistan that there might be other reasons that compelled the US to take the drastic step. Even analysts and commentators in the US are questioning if the killing of a soldier was the actual reason. They say if that was the case the US should not have entered into talks with the Taliban in the first place since this year alone 16 US servicemen were killed by the insurgents. One possible reason behind Trump’s last-minute decision may be to persuade the Taliban to agree to a permanent ceasefire, something the group has long resisted. Pulling out of the talks could be for enhancing the bargaining position of the US viz. a viz. Taliban.
Conflicting reports suggest that the Taliban are still communicating with US negotiators, at least to find out what to do next. The Taliban spokesperson claimed that the Camp David meeting with the US was delayed because Taliban wanted witnesses to the peace agreement. They wanted a signing ceremony witnessed by the Foreign Ministers of several countries, including Pakistan, Russia and China. Taliban had accepted the invite, demanding the deal be announced first by Qatar. Reportedly, Taliban Shura, or Leadership Council, had opposed its negotiators going to Camp David and admonished those who had accepted US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s invitation that was extended at the end of August. One positive development has been Trump’s decision to fire his National Security Adviser John Bolton, known for his hawkish stance. He was lobbying against striking the peace deal with the Taliban. Bolton’s sacking means that Trump is still willing to opt for the peace deal in Afghanistan. However, for any meaningful progress, Trump will have to part ways with his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as well, who is working at cross purposes with Trump’s vision regarding Afghan peace.
Acumen of Taliban is remarkable, after the collapse of talks they didn’t waste any time and sent a delegation to Russia to discuss prospects for withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan following the collapse of talks. Development looks like a part of the overall effort to enhance regional support, with visits to China, Iran and Central Asian states. “The purpose of these visits is to inform leaders of these countries about the peace talks and President Trump’s decision to call off the peace process at a time when both sides had resolved all outstanding issues and were about to sign a peace agreement,” said a senior Taliban leader in Qatar. Spokesman of Taliban, Suhail Shaheen, said the delegation held consultations with Russian envoy Zamir Kabulov, a special representative to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Afghanistan. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. The Taliban leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the purpose of the visits was not to try to revive negotiations with the US but to assess regional support for forcing it to leave Afghanistan. Mullah Baradar, the lead negotiator and believed to be the most influential of the Taliban interlocutors, has been pushing a peace deal in Afghanistan even before the US was willing to enter talks. As far back as 2010, he had secretly opened peace talks with Afghanistan’s then-president, Hamid Karzai. Even as Washington seeks an exit to its longest war, the Taliban are at their strongest since their ouster in 2001 and hold sway over more than half the country, staging near-daily, deadly attacks across Afghanistan.
Occupation forces alongside Afghan troops and Taliban have been engaged in heavy exchanges across Afghanistan. Taliban have been unapologetic about their relentless attacks which have been blamed for the talks’ collapse. These attacks were never one sided; though under reported, occupation forces have been rather ruthless in the use of disproportionately high military power. Pompeo boasted on September 08, that “more than 1,000 Taliban have been killed in battle over the past 10 days alone”. Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman in Doha, seemed anything but repentant. He argued that the US has also continued its military campaign in parallel to the peace talks, adding that “there was no cease-fire and the agreement was not signed.” Taliban continue to strike Afghan installations at will. Violence soars as presidential elections are approaching, scheduled for end September. Taliban have announced to resist these elections. Gap between the US and Taliban on this issue appears unbridgeable. Pakistan facilitated the nine rounds of talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban, and is now concerned about the stalemate. Pakistan is in touch with all ‘stakeholders’ to find a way out of the current impasse. Pakistan continues to stick to its stance that only solution to Afghan conflict lies in a politically negotiated settlement led and owned by Afghans themselves.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.