Still Weighing Options

By Mian Sanaullah

The Taliban are still dithering over whether they should resume talks with the Afghan government to promote national reconciliation. Consequently, Afghanistan continues to wallow, occasionally in blood and perpetually in chaos and instability. The new Taliban victories, incidentally on the rise, inversely affect the prospects for talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

In certain quarters, opinion prevails that Afghanistan has already suffered de facto disintegration. The only things common in all 34 Afghan provinces are the use of the Afghan passport and accumulation of power to seize more power and influence. It is thought that there is endemic corruption, failing central administration, collapsing government structures and the encroaching capacity of Taliban, facilitated by the actions of Daesh and other groups.

Buoyed over its recent successes, the Taliban are consolidating their control over about 10-15 percent of Afghan territory, more than at any time under their occupation since 2001. Many provincial capitals are in danger. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has reported that the Afghan government has lost control of nearly five percent of its territory to the Taliban since the beginning of 2016 (a loss of 19 of approximately 400 governing districts).

The Taliban feel bullish. The internal power strife between the National Unity Government leaders and its fallout in the provinces suggest that there will be no real combined force to deal with them. Afghanistan is not likely to witness any letup in fighting and bloodshed. This alarmingly gloomy scenario needs to be avoided by all stakeholders including countries indulging in proxy wars in Afghanistan.

The main responsibility to initiate talks lies with the Afghan government, which needs to enforce its territorial sovereignty and protect Afghan nationals. Apart from normal reconstruction and rehabilitation work, it has to ensure the active support of the Taliban.

Cognizant of these reasons, the Afghan government is desperate to start peace talks but is unable to inspire different factions within the Taliban to agree to that. The gamble taken by the government by embracing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has failed to mollify the opposition within the Taliban.

The Taliban are aware that they cannot win more territories; it  would be difficult for them to retain those already seized. Further, they aspire to be seen and acknowledged by non-Pakhtun Afghans as constructive partners and not spoilers in rebuilding the new Afghanistan.

Why should they alone be blamed for the continued mess in Afghanistan? After all, as pointed out by Riaz Mohammad Khan, the Taliban alone cannot be blamed for instability in Afghanistan.

The Taliban insist that they too want a peaceful and stable Afghanistan – but without foreign forces. It was no surprise that the Taliban asked Trump to withdraw “all US forces” from the country, calling it the “most important” issue. No one expects that the reconciliation process will in its initial phase address the highly contentious root causes dividing the Afghan nation. But the Taliban seem prepared to live in a Tajik-dominated Kabul, subject to representation in important ministries.

Other regional and non-regional powers with stakes in a peaceful Afghanistan want the Taliban to resume the talks without too many pre-conditions. The US wants peace and tranquillity in the region. If the Taliban do not come to table and instead keep resurging, then Trump may deploy more US troops or increase aerial attacks in Afghanistan and also mount pressure on Pakistan to take tough action against the Haqqanis and the Taliban living in Pakistan. This will be a bad omen for the region, as more US military involvement will erode the already slim prospects for peace.

So far no one knows what the Afghan policy of the new US administration will be. The US’s old habit of muddying the political atmosphere by blowing hot and cold in the same breath regarding Pakistan’s efforts to root out terrorism is not helpful.

Major regional states including China, Russia and India profess their undying support for national reconciliation in Afghanistan. But their support seems to be conditional and highly influenced by tactical gains rather than strategic goals.

India blames Pakistan for instability in Afghanistan and therefore endlessly argues for peace talks without Pakistan. It has ingratiated itself with the Kabul leadership through supply of weapons, military training and economic dole-outs.

On its part, the Afghanistan leadership and the National Directorate of Security (NDS) think that India can effectively replace Pakistan as a dependable economic partner. After the Trump win, former president Karzai tweeted that he hoped for a “change in the US policy towards Afghanistan and the campaign against #terrorism. Focus on sanctuaries beyond #Afghanistan.” ??Two former NDS chiefs, Amrullah Saleh and Rahmatullah Nabil, hoped that the US would tackle the safe havens and “supporters of terror” in Pakistan.?

China is keen on an early start of the said talks in the larger Afghan interest and for its own connectivity through Afghanistan to Central Asia. Additionally, it sees peace in Afghanistan bringing an end to the military training of its own nationals seeking separation of Xingjian from Mainland China. China supports an ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’ reconciliation process.

Iran is reportedly fraternising with the Taliban and the Afghan president has already sent out a critical statement in this regard.

Pakistan is concerned about the stalemate in the peace negotiations but its concern is not matched by efforts to cajole the Taliban (under its influence) to align themselves with the proposed talks. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group is dead and there is little chance of its effective revival. The Taliban, faced with a squeeze in Pakistan, may envisage some gain in an early start to talks with the Afghan government.

In this regard, the consultations among regional powers first at the 4th Heart of Asia conference in India and later at the gathering in Moscow among China, Pakistan and Russia in the first week of December will be useful. And Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah‘s visit to Pakistan being sooner than later would certainly help understand the Afghan mindset.

The hard Afghan knot may be tough but not impossible to untie. If the declamatory policies of regional powers reflect sincerity and are not for media consumption only, then there is no way that insolent hard-liners among the Taliban and warlords with vested interests in the anarchy in Afghanistan can defy their combined pressure. They can persuade rogue elements to accept a package based on a policy of give and take to usher in an era of prosperity for the Afghans.

The author Mian Sanaullah is a former Ambassador, political analyst and Advisor to Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). This article originally appeared in The News, November 29, 2016. Original Link.

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