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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Talks Scenario – Afghanistan Peace Process

US has decided to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and a new threat looms over the region. Regional stakeholders show concern over the safety threats after US' hurried exit. Pakistan the prime third-party victim of Afghan war tries to mediate in the peace process.

Brig (Retd) Ishaq Ahmed |

Peace in Afghanistan – A dream that is not getting to reality, despite efforts (not concerted and fruitful) of so many countries, players and even Afghan populace and leadership within and outside Afghanistan. Eighteen years down the road, for the recent invasion, insurgency to some and Jihad for Taliban, no serious peace effort has been initiated by the U.S and her allied powers nor the Afghans leaders themselves showed any interest in resolving the crisis.

Murree initiative was probably the most constructive of all yet it failed due to some suspicious stalling efforts on part of the U.S and Afghan intelligence. Other efforts like Moscow meetings, Doha efforts, Beijing talks, Turkey negotiations, Central Asian countries initiatives to bring warring factions at settlement could not yield positive outcome and after long and destructive seventeen years of fighting and bombing, the U.S and others have now realized that peace can only be achieved through settlement and negotiations.

Taliban were considered aliens not worthy to talk, the U.S never showed inclination towards settlement or negotiated resolve, therefore the peace efforts made by others would not reach conclusive ends as Taliban the major party to the conflict was never seriously engaged to negotiate peace. Noteworthy is that all parties have been trying to get towards peace yet the spoilers remained successful and peace remains elusive till today.

In almost all peace efforts, Murree, Beijing, Tashkent, Moscow, Kabul and Middle East, Pakistan tried to bring the warring faction at negotiating platforms. Peace could not materialize owing to divergent objective achievements of the vested parties

The recent American initiative headed by Zalmay Khalilzad, is probably the last-ditch battle or the desperate effort to get the U.S out of the quagmire, as the victory has gone too elusive for the American despite pumping over a trillion and losing thousands in lives of both the Afghans and the invaders. Ongoing talks between the U.S and Taliban have serious gray matters, like non-inclusion of the Unity Government of Ashraf Ghani, and Taliban’s hard-handedness towards the sitting power players. Observing the hype and the outcome so far, of the efforts undertaken by the U.S special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, it can be safely assumed that prospects are towards a positive conclusion, yet the recent announcement of summer offensive and insecurity over the recent months in Afghanistan, there remains the chances of abandonment and failure once again. As Unity Government of President Ghani is not part of the negotiation/talks so far, which also points towards likely non-decisive outcome. However, the change in attitude from Taliban towards the Unity Government may lead towards positive results. Road to peace is always bumpy and long, patience and consistency are the essence of success.

Regional Stability At Risk

The prime sufferers of the decade’s long conflict beside Afghanistan are Pakistan, U.S, and the Taliban. Others who have also become victim of the instability in Afghanistan are Iran, China, Russia and some of the central Asian countries in the north. Peace in Afghanistan through recent efforts are critical in the time frame for the U.S especially. The political promise of President Trump is to be made reality before the presidential campaign starts for the next American elections.

Losers of the conflict are many, like Afghans themselves and Pakistan but the gainers too are again Afghans and the U.S. Afghan populace especially the lords of all kinds, may it be warlords, drug lords, political leaders (lords), and financial lords, may call them businessmen (the smugglers), all have benefitted in some form. War in Afghanistan has also profited many at local and global levels. The general populace in Afghanistan has suffered the most due to the ongoing conflict, so the outcome of the recent peace talks is important for the Afghans first and others later like the U.S.

Read more: Who desires peace in Afghanistan and who does not?

The U.S is not showing its cards about the exit strategy and intentions, especially the timeline that Taliban are asking for or demanding. The U.S is not ready to leave without retaining some stakes in terms of military presence, like keeping potent enough force at one of the bases like Bagram, Kandahar or Shindand-Herat, to respond to the future plans and opportunities. The U.S is also looking towards holding good political clout and financial influence over the future power arrangements, as that is essential to continue with the global power politics/ stakes in the region. The desperate desire of the U.S at the moment is a cease-fire and safe exit.

Taliban on their side are aspiring and striving for, one – the total exit of the foreign forces from Afghanistan, two – power share in the future political or interim setup, three – removal of their leaders’ name from the UN and the U.S watch and wanted lists. Apparently, Taliban intent is to get back in power with further wishes to remain a formidable political entity in Afghan political arena. Besides, obtaining back the relevance, the main objective of Taliban is getting Afghanistan free from foreign forces.

President Ghani’s (Unity Government) government though not part of the ongoing talks, yet is important as implementation and execution of the outcome, will highly be contingent to acceptance by the sitting government. The power holders in Kabul are skeptical and scared of the return of Taliban. Populace also, not in entirety but a fairly high percentage, especially from north, believe that the Taliban will bring back the same old brand of brutal governance and that is not an acceptable option, therefore peace talks with Taliban leading to power-sharing is highly dreadful. Loya Jirga recently concluded in Kabul was an exercise in futility as the influential political figure were not visible at the venue nor their representatives. The outcome of the Jirga also indicates a stalemate.

Afghanistan’s Dilemma

Who all are working for or supportive of the exit of the U.S or international forces from Afghanistan, is a tricky question? Those profiting from the ongoing conflict will never back the peace process, therefore have raised concerns over the talks with Taliban. The rumor in the Afghan society is that Taliban, when in power, will impose the same orthodox Islamic practices. Anti-Taliban segments in the government are very critical of the inclusion of Taliban in intended interim arrangements or accepting Taliban as a political entity and making peace with them.

Non-Pashtun in specific and even fairly high numbers in Pashtuns are also skeptical of the return of Taliban, therefore, are advocating the ongoing stalemate of insecurity. Achieving stated objectives from the ongoing peace talks, by all the waring and vested factions, is an uphill and probably asking for something beyond their capacities and intentions.

The U.S will never leave without physical and influential presence. The U.S objectives of invading Afghanistan have not been achieved so far. The ongoing security and political situation indicate that the intended objectives are not obtainable.  In that case, shall the hope be tied with recent talks, surely no. Yet, efforts by the U.S, shaking hands with Taliban, financial and material losses coupled with the outcome of eighteen years of fighting, hope shall remain that the longest U.S war will end.

Read more: US cannot win the war in Afghanistan

What next, is the worry and concern for many especially, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the major losers of the last four decades of instability and insecurity. The U.S too is looking for safe and early exit now, with face-saving at the cost of Pakistan or Afghanistan. The prime concern for the observers and stakeholders is, what if the talk fails?

Taliban have categorically stated during the recent talks that they are ready for another eighteen years of fighting and will not go for a cease-fire without the U.S exit from Afghanistan.  A very hard stance, because the pullout and withdrawal of the U.S along with the physical movement of fighting stocks that have been stalked over last two decades will take about five years at least.

Which means Taliban will continue to attack the exiting U.S contingents, as they are yet not well-disposed on cease-fire. Maybe noted that Taliban is a Military faction and laying down or cease-fighting is a death scenario for them. Taliban fighters once back to home (peace), collecting them to fight again will be an uphill task, therefore Taliban have to obtain victory before the cease-fire.

For the U.S, its catch-22. They want to leave yet want to retain influence. They cannot afford continuation of the campaign as the losses are beyond sustainability in all domains. Early exit is not possible owing to ground realities/situation. Unstated objectives of the so-called terrorism war (operation enduring freedom) are still to be accomplished.

Taliban were considered aliens not worthy to talk, the U.S never showed inclination towards settlement or negotiated resolve, therefore the peace efforts made by others would not reach conclusive ends

Failure is a disaster for all, especially the Afghans and Pakistan. The U.S may be able to sustain for a while but Pakistan and Afghanistan are likely to suffer the most. Critics and observers are of the view that Afghanistan will turn to civil-war if the U.S exits, yes, the exit without sustainable outcome/ resolve will lead to in-fighting. Therefore, these talks must succeed, if peace is the objective. Failure to reach a consensus or a peace agreement will change nothing if the U.S continues to stay in the game. That is status-quo and is not a desirable option for the warring parties. Leaving Afghanistan without peace and settlement will be a tragedy for the region having long-term damage effects and regional instability.

Taliban’s Inclusion in Political Scenario

Internal political road map of Afghanistan is also heading towards a stalemate as the presidential elections have again been rescheduled for 28 September 2019. The reasons are the ongoing peace talks and election reforms. Reforms have created controversies of intent of the IEC and sitting government. In context to the U.S – Taliban talks, 20 April to 20 July election rescheduling was with the hope of positive conclusion and now the second postponement is again with the same aspiration. The apparent outcome of the talks is a stalemate which will conclude towards the conduct of presidential elections.

However, if the outcome is positive and some settlement is agreed, the Afghans will not go for polls. The settlement will lead to interim arrangements and inclusion of Taliban. Another critical and interesting decision will be the fate of existing assemblies. Recently held “Wolasi-Jirga” elections were held after a delay of four years due to many reasons, primarily the security. The MPs have recently taken oath and have spent millions while contesting in elections.

Extra-constitutional steps have to be taken for the existing assembly, which will lead to serious political crisis. Situation in the political frame is extremely hazardous, therefore the likely chances are another period of insecurity with the continued presence of the American. Finally, Pakistan, the desperate peace seeker as four decades of war has caused unimaginable and inconceivable damage that too due to others’ war.

Pakistan though became party in both wars firstly due to the fear of Soviet expansion and then forced to succumb by the American in their war of dominance. Peace is and should be the only option that Pakistan must work for and has desired over the years. Due to the Afghan wars, Pakistan has suffered in the realms of human losses, economic degradation, refugees related pressures, highest levels of insecurity, social and moral decay, yet is blamed for the Afghan catastrophe.

Read more: Peace in Afghanistan in interest of Pakistan, Iran: PM Imran Khan

Pakistan has made concerted efforts towards settlements and has contributed positively in the past and is still endeavoring for the peace. In almost all efforts, Murree, Beijing, Tashkent, Moscow, Kabul and Middle East, Pakistan tried to bring the warring faction at negotiating platforms. Critical view indicates that peace could not materialize owing to divergent objective achievements of the vested parties. Pakistan too wanted to accrue benefit out of it like all others.

Peace without looking into Pakistan’s concerns will never yield positive results. Pakistan has been the victim of Afghan instability and will continue to be the loser if peace is negotiated without addressing Pakistan concerns, like use of Afghan soil by the Indian, sheltering of terrorist outfits, cross border movements of anti-state elements, drugs mafia and political interference like Pashtunistan and greater Baluchistan.

The U.S in specific and the Afghans, have to make peace with Taliban and make Afghanistan a country free from vested power clutches. Though a difficult scenario for the Afghans in recent circumstances yet they have to opt between a troubled neighborhood and friendly borders. Pakistan holds key to peace and prosperity, therefore must be preserved accordingly.

Brigadier (Retd) Ishaq Ahmed is the Director Operations at a think tank, Pakistan House. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.