Ceasefire offers renewed hope for Afghanistan peace deal
Pakistani military chief Qamar Bajwa’s Sunday trip to Kabul signals a new turning point in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and has again revived hopes for a peace settlement in Afghanistan.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced an unconditional ceasefire with the Taliban on June 7, lasting until June 20, which excluded military action against other militant groups, such as Daesh. Ghani has urged ceasefires with the Taliban before, but this was the first unconditional offer since he was elected in 2014.
The US military soon endorsed Ghani’s offer by announcing that US forces in Afghanistan would abide by the Eid ceasefire and cease attacks against the Taliban. However, the US statement did not make any mention of the Haqqani network, which was a notable omission. The US has declared this faction of the Taliban a terrorist organization and usually makes a distinction between the Haqqani network and the rest of the Taliban. Two days later, on June 9, the Taliban responded and announced an unprecedented three-day ceasefire for Eid. However, the Taliban ceasefire offer did not include foreign forces.
This unprecedented ceasefire is raising hopes that the Eid respite may turn out to be a prelude to the start of the stalled peace process in Afghanistan. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, an ex-Taliban ambassador and a prominent commentator, has called on the Taliban and the Afghan government to turn the three-day ceasefire into a three-month cessation of hostilities so that the peace negotiations can start in an environment of goodwill.
However, peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government have unraveled in the past as the two sides have continued to fight during the discussions. The Murree talks were the first ever direct negotiations between the two sides; they started in the middle of 2015 but broke down in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust.
Now, three years on, the change in dynamic within Afghanistan is creating new challenges and also opportunities. Despite the government deploying additional troops and intensifying military pressure against the Taliban, the situation on the ground can at best be described as a stalemate, although some sources suggest the Taliban is actually expanding the number of Afghan districts under its direct control. The situation on the ground in Afghanistan is creating incentives for the US political and military command to signal more forcefully to stakeholders within Afghanistan and the larger region America’s seriousness in pursuing political reconciliation as a policy option to end the 17-year war.
Within the region there are also developments that create a new window of opportunity, such as a growing Chinese willingness to play a leading role as a mediator, and the Pakistani military’s renewed vigor in de-stressing its borders with Afghanistan.
In the last three years or so, China has become more proactively involved in Afghanistan as a regional stakeholder seeking peace and stability. Since 2015, Beijing has upgraded its political and economic relationship with the Afghan government, established direct contacts with the Taliban and, through the expanded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, become an important interlocutor and mediator for conflicting regional interests in Afghanistan.
Sobered by the deepening decline in US-Pakistan relations, Pakistan has decisively moved to strengthen its institutional links with Afghanistan, both civilian and military.
Dr. Simbal Khan
Importantly, because of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, there has been a deepening of ties and improved coordination between those two countries. It is no surprise that unconfirmed reports suggest that China was one of the key guarantors to the Taliban over the current Ghani ceasefire offer, and that it convinced the group to agree to the offer.
Since last October, Pakistan has also moved decisively to take charge of its withering bilateral relationship with Afghanistan. Internally in Pakistan, better coordination between the military high command and Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has allowed Islamabad to take quicker and more coordinated actions to salvage a worsening situation with Afghanistan.
Sobered by the deepening decline in US-Pakistan relations and worried about the growing cross-border threats from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and Daesh, Pakistan has decisively moved to strengthen its institutional links with Afghanistan, both civilian and military.
The Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity, started by Pakistan late last year, is an attempt to develop a broad framework to manage political, security and economic relations between the two countries. Recent months have seen frequent and high-level official exchanges between the two countries’ civil and military officials. In April, after Abbasi visited Kabul, the Afghan government agreed to operationalize the working groups formed under the APPAPS. Elements related to greater cooperation between the countries’ militaries and security officials are noteworthy. The APPAPS framework and associated working groups have become a good mechanism for coordination on the sensitive aspects of the political reconciliation process with the Taliban.
Pakistan’s renewed willingness to take a proactive role in restarting a process of reconciliation in Afghanistan has also helped de-escalate tensions with the US. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by phone with Bajwa on Thursday, two days before the Taliban announced the ceasefire, and discussed the process of political reconciliation in Afghanistan, according to media reports.
Lisa Curtis, deputy assistant to President Donald Trump and senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, said at a Washington seminar last week: “We have asked for Pakistan’s assistance in facilitating a peace process.”
With Afghan parliamentary elections set for October 2018, all signs indicate that key stakeholders inside and outside Afghanistan will push for another round of peace talks with the Taliban after the Eid ceasefire ends.
• Dr. Simbal Khan is a political and security analyst and a South-Central Asia specialist, with experience in regional security and development spanning 20 years. Her work has focused on issues related to trans-border militant movements in South-Central Asia and the geopolitics of border spaces. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad. Twitter: @simbalkh