Fledgling peace moves are gaining momentum in Afghanistan. For the first time since the fighting began over 17 years ago, the Taliban appear to be serious about dialogue. Six straight days of talks between the Taliban and the US, headed by envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, were held in Qatar last month. Never before had a Taliban team sat down with the Americans for so long. And at the end of the meetings, both sides were optimistic.
Following the talks in Doha, there was another round of intra-Afghan talks in Moscow in February. Russia, which has just marked 30 years of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, is also hoping to become a player in that country. President Putin had in the last couple of years reached out to the Taliban and hosted them in Moscow.
In this month’s talks, for the first time opposition politicians and tribal leaders of Afghanistan sat down across the table with the Taliban. It was attended by former President Hamid Karzai, a former national security adviser Haneed Atmar, who is running against President Ghani in the July elections and a former powerful governor Atta Muhammad Noor. This was an important landmark in the peace talks as finally the Taliban has to work out an agreement with fellow Afghans.
The next round of negotiations between Taliban and Khalilzad is slated for February 25 in Doha. The Taliban have also announced that ahead of the Doha talks another meeting between the US, Taliban and Pakistan would be held. But neither Islamabad nor Washington has confirmed this.
The Taliban team for the second round of talks in Qatar has already been announced. A 14-member team of negotiators comprises five former Guantanamo Bay inmates and a high-profile jailed leader. Taliban is pushing for the release of Anas Haqqani, younger brother of the leader of the powerful Taliban faction, Haqqani network who is currently held in an Afghan jail, possibly in Kabul.
Meanwhile, there are some gaping holes in the good news story. For one, the Taliban is continuing its terror attacks across Afghanistan. The elected government of President Ashraf Ghani is nowhere in the picture. The international consensus of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process has been pushed aside for the moment.
So while there is a sense of optimism all round, there are many ifs and buts that are yet to be resolved. Most important is: can the US ensure that the Ashraf Ghani government finds a place in the peace moves. Or will he be unceremoniously dumped by the international community? This also raises the question of what happens to the freedom that people have enjoyed under the Constitution. Will a Taliban government mean going back to the days when women were not allowed to study or work, when music was banned and where summary executions were commonplace? Will Afghanistan once again be plunged to medieval times?
“We have to determine those values which should not be compromised,” President Ghani told reporters recently. He also said that 45,000 Afghan security force members have died since he took office in 2014. “The scale of flexibility and the cost of peace must be clarified.” Despite the optimism and Ambassador Khalilzad hopes to wrap up talks by July, it is a tough ask.
The peace move has been triggered by the changing international situation. President Donald Trump is keen to bring back all American troops from foreign soil; there are around 14,000 US soldiers still in Afghanistan. This is why Khalilzad was able to agree to the Taliban insistence on removing all foreign troops from Afghanistan. He has also got a promise from them that no terror attacks would be plotted from Afghanistan. The 9/11 terror strikes were planned by Al Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden while living deep in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2001. For the Taliban the focus is on Afghanistan and not so much on spreading global jihad. Osama bin Laden was courted and protected by the Taliban also because he had heavily funded the movement.
The Taliban, while it can carry out terror strikes against the Afghan security forces at will, are not in a position of taking control of all territory, as long as the US and NATO forces continue to back the Ghani governments. In the last couple of months, US air attacks have killed several important Taliban leaders.
The Taliban possibly believe this is a good time to get concessions from an American President eager to quit an expensive war in a faraway land. Trump’s focus is more on West Asia and bringing Iran to its knees. In this he has support from regional Sunni allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Egypt. Benjamin Netanyahu is a major player in the American plan against Iran.
Pakistan is pivotal to the Afghanistan peace process. For Prime Minister Imran Khan and the powerful armed forces of that country, this is an opportunity to repair ties with the US which have rapidly deteriorated and hit rock bottom in recent times. Trump has cut down on US military aid to Pakistan and had thundered against Pakistan when he announced his new South Asia policy in 2017.
However, Washington realizes that without Pakistan’s help, bringing the Taliban to table would be impossible. The Taliban is a creation of Pakistan’s spy agency and still wields considerable influence over the outfit. So Pakistan has seized the opportunity with both hands and have been praised for its efforts by US officials.
“The relations between US and Pakistan have entered an important chapter. From day one, I have been making efforts to renew these ties [between the US and Pakistan] and thank God, developments are taking place,” foreign minister Shah Mehmood Quereshi was reported to have told local reporters. “Their [US’ officials] recent statements are very positive and instead of pointing fingers at Pakistan, our role [in Afghan peace process] is being lauded.”
For Pakistan, it is important that when the final political settlement is reached, the Taliban or pro-Pakistan forces should be in the driver’s seat. Their priority is to get India out of Afghanistan as Delhi’s footprints in its immediate neighbourhood are regarded as a security threat. With memories of Bangladesh still fresh in the Pakistan army, the cosy ties between India and Afghanistan are regarded as an existential threat by Rawalpindi.
After being a pariah in Afghanistan during the time when the former Soviet Union propped up the Najibullah regime, and a hated figure when the Taliban was ruling in Kabul, India has been able to successfully turn the tables in its favour in Afghanistan.
Successive Indian governments have had excellent ties with both former president Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. Its development projects in Afghanistan have touched lives of ordinary Afghans and made India extremely popular. Pakistan will attempt to change all that and try to ensure that its friends have a major portion of the Afghan pie.
India has also been reaching out to the Taliban. It sent two former foreign service officials to the Moscow talks with the Taliban last year. Yet the fact remains that India is a minor player in Afghanistan and has little influence in shaping the discourse. However, strategically it is important to New Delhi that Afghanistan does not revert back to its old ways, where all kinds of jihadi elements operated from there. The hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane from Kathmandu to Kandahar in 1999 happened when Taliban was in power. Masood Azhar the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief was released from an Indian prison together with other wanted terrorists in a controversial swap to release the passengers.
Today with Kashmir on the boil, an anti-India Taliban administration would be disastrous. For Pakistan it would be getting the much needed strategic depth it had been looking for. But for now, Afghanistan is far away from a peace settlement. The process is on, but without a ceasefire or involvement of the Afghan government, nothing is cast in stone. The cards are stacked against India for now. However in the last 17-years and more, New Delhi has been able to generate enormous goodwill. Can that be sustained after a peace deal is reached is for the future to tell.