INTRA Afghan talks began on 05 January. The negotiators are expected to cover contentious issues such as power-sharing and a ceasefire in this round of talks. The beginning of the second round of talks has been welcomed internationally, including by the United Nations and NATO. Pakistan has also welcomed the commencement of negotiations in Doha. Concurrently, in line with 29 February 2020 agreement with Taliban, foreign occupation forces prepare for another round of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan this month. The Trump Administration says that there will be around 2,500 US soldiers left in Afghanistan by mid-January. The February agreement requires America and its allies to withdraw all their forces from country by May 2021.
Year 2020 witnessed substantial progress towards peace in Afghanistan, with a number of positive developments, including conclusion of US-Taliban Peace Agreement on February 29, start of intra-Afghan negotiations in September and agreement on rules and procedures in December. These positive developments have paved the way for a meaningful progress in the peace talks to end the decades of unrest in the country. “We remain hopeful that the year 2021 will witness the dawn of a peaceful and stable Afghanistan,” the Foreign Office said in a statement. Though the two teams had made significant progress by finalizing the rules and procedures last month and have now reconvened to negotiate on substantive issues, both sides need to remain constructively engaged and show flexibility in the negotiations for reaching an inclusive, broad-based and comprehensive political settlement leading to lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan.
According to former Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, the US alone does not have the capacity of resolving the Afghan imbroglio and needs to cooperate with Russia, China and other regional states for a durable settlement. There is no likelihood of a total reversal of Trump’s withdrawal plans by Biden despite a surge in violence. The US cannot do that even if it wants to, because it “[the Doha Agreement] was a popular move, and the US political and military leadership, by and large, supported that.” “The Taliban too want an end to the war,” Salman Bashir added. Likewise, terming the role of Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia in the reconciliation process “crucial,” Van Dykea New York-based security analyst said: “The American people are tired of the war. But [there is a fear that] the US military and maybe the CIA [can] be seen as losing the war. Much will depend upon what Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and Iran do, or agree to do, to help the US in this regard.” Referring to Russia’s role in Afghanistan, he said there are “responsible” Democrats and Republicans who understand that Moscow wants to get back into Afghanistan.” It will play fairly. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to get rid of the US presence in Afghanistan,” he contended.
AFP reported that Afghan government negotiators will push to enact a permanent ceasefire and to protect existing governance arrangements. Addressing parliament on January 04, Afghan Intelligence Chief Ahmad Zia Saraj had voiced concern that the Taliban will attempt to drag out the talks. We believe the Taliban are planning to drag the talks (out) until the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan in the month of May,” he said. “We do not see the Taliban has any intention or will for peace,” he added. An agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban should usher in an inclusive government that protects the rights of all Afghans, said Abdul Khaliq Haqqani, Director of the Herat Department of Hajj and Religious Affairs. “All religious scholars support the peace talks between the Government and the Taliban in Qatar and consider them a golden opportunity to stop the bloodshed of Muslims in the country,” he added. “We hope that the two negotiating teams would continue to engage with open-mind and will observe patience, prudence and perseverance to seize this historic opportunity for peace,” Haqqani added.
More than 1,000 residents of Herat Province gathered on January 3 in Herat city to urge the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire during the second round of peace talks.. Also, more than 100 religious scholars gathered at the Herat Grand Mosque on December 31 to denounce the war in Afghanistan and to urge parties to the conflict to declare a ceasefire. “We ask the government and the Taliban to stop the war so that Afghans can live in comfort,” said Abdul Rashid, a resident of Shindand District, Herat Province. “Our young people should not be killed in war anymore, and we can no longer tolerate the loss of our loved ones,” he added. “The war has continued in Afghanistan for 40 years, and it has not helped,” he said. “This war has resulted in destruction and the killing of ordinary Afghans.”
The US special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, described as “unacceptable” the current level of violence, including targeted killings. “Those perpetuating the violence seek to undermine the peace process and the country’s future. They do not reflect the will of the Afghan people, who yearn for peace,” Khalilzad said on Twitter. “I return to Doha and the region with expectations that parties will make tangible progress in next round of Afghanistan peace negotiations,” he said. Khalilzad reiterated his call for both Afghan rivals to quickly reach an agreement on a political settlement and an “immediate significant” reduction in violence or a cease-fire.
However, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged that since the signing of the deal, US soldiers have suffered no deaths in Afghanistan. He said Trump’s peace initiative also has made “incredible progress” toward ending years of Afghan hostilities. “No US servicemen have been killed in Afghanistan in almost a year, and Afghans are finally discussing peace and reconciliation among themselves. Such incredible progress,” Pompeo said in a series of tweets. US-Taliban agreement has stopped insurgent attacks against US and NATO-led allied troops in Afghanistan. It has also initiated direct peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan Government in September.
Pakistan has consistently maintained that there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict and political settlement is the only way forward. Towards this end, Pakistan has been engaged in serious efforts to facilitate an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process. Pakistan’s serious efforts have facilitated an important breakthrough in the peace process during 2020. Hopefully, the Afghan parties would now seize this historic opportunity and workout a comprehensive and inclusive political settlement for durable peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region through Afghan-led and Afghan-owned intra-Afghan negotiations. Pakistan desires and continues to support a peaceful, stable, united, independent, democratic, sovereign and prosperous Afghanistan.
—The Islamabad-based writer is a retired army officer and a regular contributor to the national press.