Washington must save the Afghan peace process while there is still time
The US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad has been visiting Kabul and Doha in what appears to be an unending series of negotiations with his interlocutors. The latest visit comes in the backdrop of a renewed call by Taliban to honor the decisions of the agreement that was reached with the Americans on February 29, 2020. The landmark agreement envisaged the departure of all foreign forces by May 2021—a deadline that is only weeks away.
There is a perceptible sense of anxiety in the ranks of Taliban leaders since the inauguration of Joe Biden as US President. Mr. Biden has, perhaps without much consideration, announced that the US will carry out a review of the agreement signed with Taliban. This announcement has created a sense of uncertainty. There are questions about the continuing relevance and validity of an agreement that took months to negotiate and conclude. Any wise and prudent approach would have required stakeholders to move forward. Regrettably, instead of that happening, the wheels are turning backwards. Would a suspension of the deal be of any benefit to anyone? If the deal is rendered meaningless, the future scenario will be one of more fighting, more human losses and material destruction, more desperation and more suffering and agony for a country devastated by war.
It would appear the US policy has run into difficulties. Washington has failed to get Kabul on board for any real, tangible success in negotiations. The peace talks in Doha were expected to create a convergence on the idea of a multi-ethnic government of which the Taliban would have been an integral component. That concept was premised on the current Kabul government ceding space for the installation of a transitional government. The Ashraf Ghani government was obviously opposed to any such scheme. Apparently, the idea of an interim government is not being pursued with any real commitment. Only by bringing clarity to its approach on the complex issue of mainstreaming Taliban and ending the conflict, could the Americans make a durable contribution to the goal of peace and stability. That is not in sight. Instead, efforts are underway to promote such ideas as ‘reduction of violence, ceasefire and substantive negotiations.'
These objectives can only be pursued if the overall direction is clearly defined and one that has the consent of the parties including Taliban. Surprisingly, there has been little headway being made on the principal demand of the Taliban and one that the group has consistently advocated i.e. the timeframe for withdrawal of forces. The Taliban believe they have complied with the February agreement by not having launched any attacks on foreign forces. They also claim to have set free all government prisoners in exchange for their own prisoners. The blacklist however, still remains, but that obstacle can be overcome if the contours and composition of a transitional government is resolved.
Surprisingly, there has been little headway made on the principal demand of the Taliban and one that the group has consistently advocated i.e. the timeframe for withdrawal of forces.
Rustam Shah Mohmand
During his current visit, Khalilzad will once more urge the Taliban to reduce violence and agree to a ceasefire. Khalilzad knows a ceasefire coming into effect would be construed as a solid breakthrough in his endeavors to seek reconciliation. Taliban may not agree to the proposal because they realize that accepting a ceasefire will damage their movement beyond repair, as volunteers lose motivation to carry on the fight. This insistence on a ceasefire has been deliberated upon a number of times with no success. It is time the US adopts a more pragmatic approach and one that could help in moving stalled peace talks forward.
Just a formal resumption of talks will not be of much help considering that the two sides are not showing any real flexibility in their stance on critical issues.
The US must take some fundamental realities into account in formulating a new vision for peace in the country. That Taliban will not rule Afghanistan as a single political entity; any future dispensation would be inclusive and broad-based, and any future government that includes Taliban would try to keep friendly ties with the US.
Taliban are now talking to the Russians, once their enemies. They are in contact with Iran which had deep suspicions about the strategic direction of Taliban. The US should not premise its policy on the belief that with its departure from Afghanistan, the Chinese influence in the region will grow. Chinese influence is a reality given that the ‘One Belt, One Road,’ project is going to leave a deep impact on the whole region.
If there is an orderly withdrawl, preceded by the creation of an interim government for a specified period of time, the US will have left behind not chaos but a new system. Such a move will win US support and admiration in the region, including in Afghanistan.
Washington must realize the fragility of the current system in the face of stark realities. Unemployment has surged to more than 60 percent. Opium production has gone upto 7,000 tons. Taliban control more than 55 per cent of territory. Crime has spiked. Daesh, taking advantage of a frightening vacuum and the pervasive environment of insecurity, has been launching ferocious attacks on government and civilian installations causing misery and suffering to innocent citizens. The government survives on $4.5 billion of assistance provided by the US and NATO. Saving such a government, that has failed on all fronts, at the cost of the people of Afghanistan, would be folly.
If these ground realities are not incorporated in a new approach to the issue, the US will have run out of options. The alternative to the peace process collapsing are too horrendous to contemplate. Save the process while there is time.
– Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.