Peace in Afghanistan: Overcoming diplomatic stalemate
Disdain for diplomacy is characteristic of a world becoming ever more attuned to unilateralist inclinations and power play.
Diplomacy is the art of the possible, dependent on a variety of elements including assessments and expectations. In Afghanistan, hopes for peace arising from talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban were dashed just when everyone thought a negotiated interim agreement was at hand.
This interim agreement seemed to be a win for all except for the government of Afghanistan, which resents being ignored by the Afghan Taliban who have never accepted its legitimacy.
When President Ashraf Ghani’s administration proceeded with the holding of general elections in Afghanistan in September, the Afghan Taliban strongly opposed it.
Against this backdrop, are regional bystanders like Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China, left wondering whether the revival of diplomacy for pursuing eventual peace in Afghanistan is a possibility. Russia convened a meeting in Moscow of the quad – China, Pakistan, Russia and the US – to emphasize the need for resuming dialogue. Pakistan hosted the Afghan Taliban in Islamabad to underscore the need for re-engagement and China offered an intra-Afghan dialogue that is apparently on hold for now.
In this environment, the prisoner exchange deal whereby three Taliban prisoners held at Bagram were to be exchanged for an Australian and American hostage held by the Taliban, came into effect on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has hailed this development and expressed hope that it will lead to a resumption of the peace process. Pakistan has itself played a facilitative role to overcome impediments and a delay in the prisoners’ exchange deal was ascribed by the US to the increasingly violent situation on the ground in Afghanistan.
A high-level quad meeting on cooperation for Afghanistan’s development could lead to in-depth consultations with all Afghan parties for reaching a broad agreement that involves those with local authority, and those who are in positions to affect development projects.
The simultaneous fight-and-talk approach has not worked, and it is not conducive to building trust. There is a need for the complete cessation of hostilities and confidence building measures.
Recently, the ground situation has deteriorated with intensified violence, and there is no doubt that the government of Afghanistan must play an effective role in any process for peace in the country, with requisite standing and the capacity to do so.
A format of negotiations could then be devised to get the principal stakeholders engaged in a process that is result oriented. But the big question is about the political will of these stakeholders — the Afghan government, Afghan Taliban and the US.
Of the three, the US and Taliban have said they want a cessation of hostilities and had reached a tentative accommodation on the terms and conditions of a ceasefire. But the Afghan government undoubtedly wants to engage with the Taliban directly.
Still, despite the successfully completed prisoner swap, for the Taliban to recognize the Afghan government’s legitimacy seems an impossibility for now. The US Special Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, had devised a stepwise approach which would have led to intra-Afghan talks — it was a realistic approach and should have been given a chance.
Unfortunately, no other initiatives are in the offing. It is evident and widely recognized that there is no military solution to the strife in Afghanistan.
The US can still reduce its military involvement and secure the withdrawal of some US troops unilaterally. President Trump has even hinted that they could bomb their way out. The Afghan Taliban however, seem to believe that time is on their side and that they can afford to wait. But it is the Afghan government whose options are limited, and which is dependent on outside support with perhaps the most to lose.
Under the circumstances, it is possible to take a fresh look at issues and possible solutions. The standard prism for diplomatic discourse is stalemated. It is also somewhat misplaced, as it puts a premium on politics and not the economy and social well-being of the Afghan people. The central issue in fact, is the reality of Afghanistan’s war economy. The international community and particularly regional bystanders could prove helpful in enabling Afghanistan to achieve economic stability and improve the lives of ordinary Afghans.
This will require regional power consultations together with the US and an appropriate mechanism would be the ‘quad’, making up China, Pakistan, Russia, and the US. A high-level quad meeting on cooperation for Afghanistan’s development could lead to in-depth consultations with all Afghan parties for reaching a broad agreement that involves those with local authority, and those who are in positions to affect development projects.
In doing so, the roots of political instability, strife and continuing infestations of terrorism could be more effectively addressed. And a new agenda for peace, premised on economic development as its top priority, could emerge.
-Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India.