Both US and Taliban realize it is time to give peace a chance
Will fighting in Afghanistan ever come to an end? History is testament to the fact that the longer a war lasts, the more complex it becomes, as it creates a culture of war and leads to polarization in the society, with multiple local and foreign actors taking part in the process.
Since 1978, the country has gone through four-cycles of war --- namely two civil wars, followed by two wars of intervention by the Soviet Union and the United States.
The US and its allies -- with sanctions from the United Nations Security Council -- invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. Their objective was to dislodge the Taliban's network, something which they were able to achieve very easily with the fall of the regime two months later.
However, other goals -- such as restoring peace, stability and nation-building -- continue to remain elusive. Rather, the country is in a state of chaos -- divided, at war, and with the Taliban appearing to gain strength once again by capturing more territories.
With the fluidity of the war and all parties harboring the illusion that they can win the conflict by imposing their own solutions, it's no wonder then that none have reached a political settlement until now. However, those very deterrants may soon see a change in strategy.
The US and nearly 40 other countries supporting it in have reworked their tactical doctrine and style of operations, going as far as to try almost every rule, weapon and combination of forces to defeat the Taliban.
At best, the war is currently stalemated, and there is a growing consensus within the US that it must withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in a manner which ensures that the political and security order -- which they have so assiduously built and heavily-invested in -- wouldn’t be taken over by the Taliban forces. The Taliban, on their part, have bid well for time while taking full advantage of the geography and terrain.
The Taliban's constant rhetoric that "foreign forces are occupying Afghanistan", even as it continues to accuse the national government of being a "puppet" in the hands of occupiers seems to be resonating among the masses who take pride in acknowledging the fact that they defeated the British in the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th century.
Irrespective of how the American war ends, the same national myth is likely to get deeply engrained in the minds of the people residing in dusty villages along the vast Afghan countryside, even if it has no impact on the urban classes who have benefitted greatly from American and Western assistance in rebuilding Afghanistan.
A bitter reality is that wars, such as the one defining Afghanistan right now, results in no winners -- everyone loses at the end, with some impacted a little more than the others. Insurgencies and counter-insurgencies exhaust democracies more than the system itself because it is the governments that are held accountable by those questioning the purpose of foreign intervention.
The issue is that more and more superpowers prefer to intercede in a foreign country rather then get out of it due to the quagmire effects of long wars.
The Taliban and the US representatives have held two meetings in the past, with the latest one taking place in October. This development seems to have opened new windows of opportunity in working toward ending the conflict.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Even when the leaders realize the futility of fighting wars abroad, they find it politically difficult to pull out without ensuring stability and peace. Not surprisingly then that Washington's closing act is that it would withdraw from Afghanistan, but with responsibility, thereby ensuring that the stability and security order which it has invested in doesn’t collapse.
That makes political and strategic sense, especially because if the American and allied forces quit without reaching a political settlement, it would plunge Afghanistan into yet another bout of civil war. No regional or great power would want to see that happen as it would have a domino effect in every direction.
There are signs of hope for the realization of a peace process which could end the Afghan war. The Taliban and the US -- the two real parties in the conflict -- have finally begun to engage each other in a dialogue.
The US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, has emphasized that "reconciliation is an important aspect of the Afghan strategy", without naming the Taliban. Obviously, the background of this comment is freeing five Taliban leaders from the Guantanamo detention facility who have taken on the responsibility to be the ‘negotiators’ at the Taliban's Doha office. This is the same office that the Taliban were allowed to set up a few years ago, for negotiations between Afghanistan and the US.
Another important development is that Pakistan has set Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar -- a top-ranking Taliban leader -- free, fulfilling a long-standing demand of the Afghan government.
These six Taliban leaders are the most senior and well-respected among the rank and file of the militia and have intimate knowledge of every local or foreign actor who might be interested in Afghanistan’s conflict. The big challenge for them is to get to know the Taliban field commanders, the second-tier leaders and the ground situation in Afghanistan before they make any commitments.
The Taliban and the US representatives have held two meetings in the past, with the latest one taking place in October. All these developments seem to have opened new windows of opportunity in working toward ending the conflict. There have also been several rounds of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan authorities.
The developments indicate two things: A willingness to explore a political settlement and a flexibility extended by all parties. These are two fundamental conditions for starting any peace process. Several attempts have been made in the past to get the US and the Taliban on the negotiating table, but never have we got so close to a serious political dialogue as where we are today.
There is eagerness, some urgency, and political courage at last to recognize the harsh reality of the conflict — neither can the Taliban conquer Kabul, nor can Kabul and its foreign allies defeat the Taliban decisively. All sides wish to save face and emerge victorious at the same time.
That is only possible a through a peace settlement to ensure all parties win.
– Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity (Oxford University Press, 2017). @RasulRais