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Afghan Peace enters a crucial phase: Challenges Ahead?

Amb Rustom Shah Mohmand, Senior diplomat argues that with a new administration in Washington, new challenges have arisen in Afghanistan’s already chaotic political landscape. Many major players have come forward posturing to take part in the revival of what is notoriously known as the “Graveyard of Nations.”

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The new Biden Administration has lost no time in unfolding a new ‘strategy’ for breaking the deadlock in the peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul Government. While the agreement reached with the Taliban in Feb 2020 by the Trump administration is still under review, Washington has formulated a path-breaking new approach for ending the long conflict.

The new initiative seeks to create a consensus among neighboring countries on a unified approach to reconciliation. The UN would be advised to convene a meeting in Turkey to try to establish a common, agreed approach to peace in the war-ravaged country.

Also, the main stakeholders, i.e. the Afghan Government and Taliban, would also be urged to fast track their deliberations for removing hurdles in the way of a smooth and orderly transition. Amendments to the constitution and other crucial issues like the formation of an interim government would also be discussed so that there is a convergence of views.

There would be a call for a reduction of violence for 90 days in order to help create a conducive environment for meaningful negotiations to move forward. Conveying these proposals to President Ghani in a letter, the US Secretary of State Mr Blinken also warned the Afghan President that in the event of a complete US withdrawal of forces, there could be a possibility of Taliban advancing on Kabul.

Read more: Blinken leaves NATO allies waiting on US Afghan decision

The new American approach takes into account the vulnerability of an Afghan Government without external military support. It also acknowledges the future role of the Taliban in the interim government pending elections. While it does not call for a complete ceasefire, it nevertheless stresses the need for a three-month reduction in attacks.

The US plan once again reflects the intention of Washington to leave Afghanistan as soon as conditions permit. The US initiative is a serious effort to bring peace and provides a basis for a constructive dialogue on finding common ground for reconciliation.

But many roadblocks have to be cleared before there emerges a consensus on the Governance system and the idea of an interim government in the country. The US plan does not lay down a clear deadline for withdrawal of all foreign forces as agreed to in the Doha deal of 2020.

Taliban insist on adhering to the deadline. It now appears likely that it would not be possible to pull out foreign forces in just under five weeks before the deadline expires. The withdrawal would have to wait longer. How the Taliban react to such postponement of the departure of foreign forces would remain to be seen.

Read more: Taliban agrees to attend Afghan peace talks in Moscow

Resistance from the old guard

But the real stumbling block to peace is the unwillingness of the leaders of Afghan Government to cede space for installing an interim government. Ashraf Ghani’s Government would not acquiesce in any solution that comes at their cost.

In arguing its case, the Kabul Government asserts that ‘they are a product of a legitimate electoral process; that they have come into government following an election that was held under the country’s constitution.’

Any mainstreaming of the Taliban, the government maintains, would be done according to its own policy. On paper, this would seem to a logical approach. However, on a closer look, the situation is far different. The government is in control of less than 50 percent of the territory while the Taliban control more than 55 percent of the area.

In areas under Taliban control, the group collects taxes, administers courts and the justice system and provide security to the people. Unemployment is at a record high. Some reports speak of more than 60 percent of adults being unemployed.

That explains why people are leaving the country in large numbers regardless of the dire consequences in case of them being intercepted. Opium production has reached nearly 7,000 tons. Security has deteriorated all over the country.

Read more: Economically devastated by pandemic and war, cash-strapped Afghans turn to opium

Daesh—the brutal outfit, has launched ferocious attacks on helpless citizens causing, untold misery and suffering to rank and file citizens. Alongside Daesh, other groups espousing similar ideologies have caused a number of attacks in Northern Afghanistan.

These include Fidayee Mahaz and Turkistan Islamic movement. The country survives on foreign economic and financial assistance. Not only that, the entire expenditure on the Security forces –roughly about 300,000 (the army and police) is borne by the US and its NATO allies.

A few months ago, in an interview, the Afghan President admitted that without foreign forces assisting in security, the government would not last for more than 6 months. Many were wondering whether that was being too optimistic.

Such then is the desperate situation in which Afghanistan finds itself today. The reality is that Ashraf Ghani would just not let an interim government replace his own, which is leading the country into chaos and uncertainty.

The only factor that can change his intransigence is the one that keeps him in power by its military and financial support. Unless Washington draws a clear line and decides to terminate its support if the regime does not fall in line with an agreed consensus for an interim government, things would not move.

Read more: US seems to abandon Afghan land once again as Ball is in the court of Ashraf Ghani

Now the Afghan President has come out with a new proposal. He would, during the anticipated Conference to be held in Turkey, suggest that his government is willing to hold new elections so that power could then be transferred to another elected one.

This would seem reasonable and may appeal to the countries attending the moot. But President Ghani knows that his adversaries, the Taliban, are ill-equipped to participate in an election because the ‘movement’ has not, as yet, been converted into a political party that is organized for taking part in an election.

The question is: Is the US prepared to pressure Ghani into accepting the ground realities and agreeing to let an interim government take control of the country to save it from descending into chaos and civil war? The US, in answering this question, would have to consider the rapidly changing geopolitical situation in the country and the wider region.

Afghan Peace
Taliban members stand in front of a portrait of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as they attend a ceremony at the governor’s office after being released by authorities in Herat.

New threats on the horizon

Russia, China and Iran have formally established a working relationship with the Taliban. Russia considers Daesh as a potential threat to the stability of its borders because the group can make inroads into Russian territory via the Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan.

It believes only the Taliban can dismantle groups like Daesh. Moscow, therefore, sees a strategic convergence of perceptions between itself and the Taliban. For similar reasons, China and Iran have warmed up to the Taliban because both Beijing and Tehran firmly believe that only with Daesh in the government, outfits like Fidayee Mahaz and Daesh can be eliminated and their borders made safer.

The US is aware of these sensitivities. It also realizes that there would be some hope for a more constructive engagement with the Taliban once they assume responsibility, having learned from their mistakes while in power in the late 90s. The US also realizes that the ground realities are changing.

China, with its ‘belt and road initiative’, is generating widespread support in countries neighboring Afghanistan. China is also making considerable investments in Afghanistan because the country’s stability would help create conditions for successfully completing the projects under the belt and road connectivity project.

Washington is, therefore, keen to depart from the country in a manner that leaves enough room for future economic and political relations with Kabul. It would not like to be seen as having abandoned a country that it controlled for 20 years—the Vietnam saga will not be repeated.

Read more: ‘Daesh/ISIS militant presence in Afghanistan a threat to regional security’: SCO

Pakistan’s stake amid the chaos

Pakistan is deeply anxious to see normalcy return to a country with which it shares a long border. The US has been relying on Pakistan for some contacts with the Taliban. Islamabad has leverage with the movement, but there are limits to Pakistan’s clout that are often overlooked.

There are issues of fundamental importance to the Taliban that the group would not perhaps be willing to compromise on. Then in the past, many decisions have been taken that have gravely impinged on its ties with the Taliban.

The leaders of the movement have not forgotten how Islamabad facilitated the US occupation of their country by sacrificing their government. While they would still listen to Pakistan’s advice because of compulsions like their leaders keeping their families in Pakistan, they would take their own decisions in matters affecting the future of the country as envisaged in their ideology.

Another factor that restricts Pakistan’s leverage is its obsession with India’s role in Afghanistan. In so doing, Pakistani policymakers forget that India and Afghanistan have over two thousand years of civilizational contacts with India.

India is one of the principal donors to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Pakistan certainly can demand that Afghan soil would not be allowed to be used against Pakistan no matter who rules Afghanistan.

But beyond that, any dictation on how Kabul would reach out to its neighbors or regional countries would not be acceptable to Afghans. Not only that, Afghans would be unhappy if any one country would be seen to be obstructing the country’s relations with neighbors-near and far.

It is often claimed in Pakistan that India is a spoiler in the Afghan peace process. Why should India be a spoiler? What does it gain by blocking efforts for peace? India has stakes in peace in Afghanistan. It has to protect its huge investment of nearly $ 3 billion.

Then India needs the hydrocarbon resources of Central Asia for which Afghanistan provides access. The Iranian port of Chabahar has been developed for facilitating trade between India and Central Asia. Pakistan, for a host of reasons, would remain of fundamental relevance to Afghanistan.

No other country would gain as much from Afghanistan’s stability as Pakistan, and no other country would suffer as much from that country’s instability as Pakistan.

Read more: Pakistan and Afghanistan trade shows upward trend as border opened

Afghan Peace
Officials attend the Afghan peace conference in Moscow, Russia, on March 18, 2021

Ending the “Forever War”?

The key lies with the US. It has important levers of both cash and military presence. How would these assets be used to bring about a change that is sustainable and reflects the aspirations of a long-suffering people would require deft handling and skillful diplomacy.

Whether the US would be willing to take tough decisions to break the impasse in peace talks and keep regional countries on board remains to be seen. The alternative to a workable consensus and agreement would be the country edging closer to anarchy with all its ramifications and consequences for Afghanistan and the region.

Rustam Shah Mohmand is a senior Pakistani diplomat, political scientist and politician. He has served as Chief Secretary NWFP, Interior Secretary of Pakistan, Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan and Commissioner for Afghan Refugees.

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