(AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
Recent developments in the security landscape of Afghanistan have given rise to certain speculations and harsh realities. Taliban’s participation is critical for credible resumption of the stalled national reconciliation peace process. Even President Ashraf Ghani and his Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah are fully conscious that without the Taliban, there would be no genuine national reconciliation. However, the unity government and their cohorts ignore a few home truths.
In Afghanistan, no warlord or a fighting group has the capacity to replace Taliban and their ability to withstand the government and its foreign allies. Factionalism maybe common among Taliban but they cannot be eviscerated. Their reaction against the reintegration process involving Gulbuddin Hikmatyar proves that Taliban know the impulse of the geopolitical games at play in their country. This fact explains why Hikmatyar’s call to Taliban saying: “Let’s end the war, live together as brothers and then ask foreigners to leave,” was largely ignored. Among Pashtuns, he was touted more as another leader vying for political power than a unifying force, despite his ethnic card.
Ghani’s recent peace offer to Taliban suffers from some operational and policy flaws. More than bullying, his desperation and weakness reached his detractors. He seems to be admitting his vulnerability and ability to think beyond the script handed over to him by his foreign allies who do not understand that Afghanistan is no longer frozen in time. In many ways, it has changed from 2001 when US had attacked it. Aspirations of the people have changed. These new factors are re-shaping the muddled political landscape in the country. The situation maybe chaotic but the direction is getting clearer: Afghans want to solve their problems themselves. Allies at best can offer assistance.
Talking to Taliban does not seem to be the consistent national priority of Ghani. He is unable to detach cultural embarrassments surrounding military defeats from political correctness with which he can broaden his appeal and control at the national level. It is a sheer erroneous political move to talk about national reconciliation whenever Taliban or ISIS and their associates put the government under pressure by staging massive attacks in cities or capturing new territories.
Taliban are a reality. They are Afghans. Good or bad, they are the sole responsibility of the Afghan government. As a President, Ghani should make his mind what he thinks of them. Does he regard Taliban as his barbaric enemies or political insurgents indispensable for peace? And can Taliban be treated as a credible political force?
He has developed a notion that Taliban are a creation of Pakistan. They cannot last beyond one month without support from Pakistan. Perhaps he has forgotten the candid admittance of President Obama (December 2016) that ” United States cannot wipe out Taliban or end violence in Afghanistan”.
Ghani is looking at Taliban from the American perspective, which keeps shifting due to political realignments and geopolitics. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, (June 5, 2017) appeared to break with the Obama administration’s position that there is “no military solution” to the conflict in Afghanistan.
At an appearance with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Defense and Foreign ministers of Australia, Mattis said, “they [the Taliban] use bombs, because ballots would ensure they never had a role to play.”
Tillerson did not even mention a “peace process” or a political settlement. Mattis made it clear that he does not believe Taliban would, or even could, be part of a democratically elected government in Afghanistan.
President Ghani is using the same policy, which failed former president Hamid Karzai. He is not prepared to readjust his strategy in line with the shifting ground realities in his country. His words and rhetoric are reminiscent of the Karzai era.
In his June 6 invitation to Taliban, he threatened that “if they (Taliban) failed to take up the offer, Afghanistan would push for the UN to sanction the group as a ‘perpetrator and sponsor’ of terror”.
He warned the offer is “not an open-ended opportunity”. Without acknowledging Taliban as a political force, he presented them a Doha type representative office in Kabul or elsewhere with guaranteed safety. But he subjected the offer to preconditions, including recognition of the Afghan constitution, continuity of the reforms of educating and advancing the rights of women, and renunciation of violence and linkages with terrorist groups.
Taliban reaction was not difficult to predict. Zabihullah Mujahid on their behalf said that “the Kabul administration wants Taliban to surrender but this fake process will never succeed”. Taliban and Afghans in general, would welcome any peace conference that is organized for ending the “occupation” of their country.
President Donald Trump has spoken little about the war in Afghanistan. He is still in the process of reviewing the US Afghan policy. It is unclear whether the policy will depend more on military or politics to resolve the Afghan morass. Indications are that US is poised to expand military effort against Taliban. In essence, Trump is not ready to leave Afghanistan without political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban (Obama formula).
Carlotta Gall (author of The Wrong Enemy; America in Afghanistan) states that the U.S. and NATO “cannot walk away” until the security of the Afghan population “is ensured.” In plain words, it is a rejection of the key preconditions Taliban had put forward before joining the peace talks.
This US attitude brings us back to the chicken or the egg causality dilemma. Which should come first: political settlement or withdrawal of foreign forces. This dilemma is likely to continue if not worsen.
President Trump’s senior military and foreign policy advisers have proposed a major shift in strategy in Afghanistan that would effectively put US back on a war footing with Taliban (Miss Ryan and Greg Jaffe, May 8).
Expanding the US military role will form part of a broader effort to push an increasingly confident and resurgent Taliban back to the negotiating table. Many experts remain sceptical whether using military pressure to reach a political agreement with Taliban would work given the diverse objectives of key players, such as Taliban, the Afghan government, Pakistan, Iran and Russia.
The US half realizes that it is living with a costly stalemate and few solutions. Taliban will steadily continue, “jeopardising the survival” of Ghani government and “endangering a key U.S. base for combating al-Qaeda and the Islamic State”. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sees ‘another tough year’ ahead and does not foresee any respite.
In my view, strategies such as “hold the line, make incremental progress in fight against Taliban, shift the blame on Pakistan for failure in Afghanistan, make no real concessions to Taliban” would not work. Perhaps Daniel Feldman (Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan) is right to emphasize that to achieve a sustainable resolution, security investments must be matched by actions to support political and economic stability.
Can the Afghans resolve their differences themselves? How will they do it is not yet clear but they will figure it out sooner or later. As long as Ghani finds the stalemate as an opportunity to stay in power, it would be hard for Taliban to assume their position in the power structure in Afghanistan. The chaos in this strategic country will continue.
The writer is a former Ambassador who can be contacted at email@example.com