New optimism for peace in Afghanistan
Ongoing efforts for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan by US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad have raised new hopes for a breakthrough in peace efforts. Bringing the Taliban insurgency to an end through a political settlement was one of the main campaign promises of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Immediately upon coming to power, Ghani embarked on his peace initiative by reaching out to Pakistan, where many Taliban sanctuaries are located.
Unfortunately, his repeated attempts resulted in disappointment and were not reciprocated by Pakistan’s government. Just a few days ago, the Afghan capital Kabul witnessed another horrific terrorist attack that targeted a gathering of Islamic scholars and religious students to celebrate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Another attack took place in Khost on Friday. Every single terrorist attack in the country in which innocent lives are lost reminds Afghans that peace is more vital than anything else.
The Afghanistan High Peace Council, formed during former President Hamid Karzai’s tenure, has remained a forum for intra-Afghan dialogue and peace negotiations with the Taliban.
But the council is considered by many Afghans as ineffective and only symbolic. Many also believe it is an unnecessary financial burden on the national exchequer. Ghani is now working to form a more robust and efficient advisory board that will facilitate national debate for a peace deal with the Taliban.
Although the National Unity Government (NUG) is yet to succeed in any peace settlement with the Taliban, bringing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami party into mainstream politics was a credible achievement. The credit goes to Ghani and symbolizes the NUG’s commitment to peace.
Hekmatyar’s entry into the state as a peaceful political actor was a significant event. It no longer left any room for the Taliban to treat the Afghan government as an illegitimate partner to negotiate with.
The Taliban has long insisted that any peace deal with the government must include the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghan soil. Khalilzad’s latest optimism about reaching a peace agreement implies that the US might be willing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan for the sake of peace.
The Taliban also demands that its prisoners be released and that the names of its leaders be removed from the terror blacklist. Since similar demands were met for the sake of a peace settlement with Hekmatyar, there is no reason why such demands cannot be met in the case of the Taliban.
Every single terrorist attack in the country in which innocent lives are lost reminds Afghans that peace is more vital than anything else.
During the last Eid Al-Fitr, when the Afghan government and the Taliban held a three-day ceasefire, there was not a single incident of violence reported nationwide. This proved that the Taliban has a highly organized command-and-control system, which helps in negotiating with a single leadership.
During the ceasefire, Taliban commanders and fighters met with Afghan government officials, had meals with them and mingled with locals. Some took selfies with people while roaming city centers that went viral on social media. The unprecedented move showed Afghans’ enthusiasm for peace with the Taliban and that they are fed up with violence.
Without sustainable peace and security, no agenda for economic growth, good governance, eradicating corruption and delivering services to citizens can be realized. That is why Ghani has made peace his top priority. Peace is possible, but not without a national, regional and international consensus. While there is widespread support for peace with the Taliban among Afghans, sustainable peace requires roles by our regional and international partners.
The political atmosphere for peace has never been as favorable as it is now, mainly because of renewed US interest and the political will of the Afghan government and the Taliban. Khalilzad is well-respected among Afghans and has a reputation for being diplomatically savvy. Being an Afghan American, he has a deep understanding of the political dynamics of Afghanistan and the region. Afghans count on him to help bring about a political settlement with the Taliban.
Peace is not only vital for Afghans; it is in the interest of the region and the world, in this age of economic interdependence and globalization.
• Ajmal Shams is president of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party and based in Kabul. He was a deputy minister in the Afghan National Unity Government and served as policy adviser to Ashraf Ghani when he chaired the security transition commission before his presidential bid.