The writer is a former diplomat, who has served as Ambassador of Pakistan to Iran and UAE and as deputy head of mission to Afghanistan
The Afghan peace initiative by Russia last week, held in Moscow, may not have reached a breakthrough but has set the stage for future negotiations amongst the stakeholders. The two most important stakeholders in the meeting included a Taliban delegation from its Qatar office along with the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) representing the Afghan government. However, the government in Kabul maintained that the HPC representation was “unofficial” in nature as they delegation participated in a “personal capacity”.
Even before the meeting, the outcome of not achieving a major breakthrough was already known, however the most significant progress in the Afghan peace process was underlined by the delegations from both Kabul and the Taliban sitting in the same room. Similarly, the US which till recently brushed aside any proposal of reconciliation with the Taliban shared the forum with the latter. In fact, it already has initiated a dialogue process with the Taliban since July this year and two rounds of talks have since been held, while the third round, under US representative Zalmay Khalilzad is also in progress.
The developments also suggest that the Taliban might have finally shown some flexibility in its war tactics; instead of pursing only military options Taliban seem to have realized the utility of the political talks which can ultimately accrue the desired results of bringing peace in the country. Moreover, now that they have proved their prowess to control almost half of the country and contest another 20-25 percent territory the next step, which the Americans also acknowledge, would be finding a mutually acceptable political solution.
The Trump administration has also realized that further extending this war might provide more embarrassment for Washington in the global arena. Americans also realize that Afghan Security forces lack the necessary motivation to stand on their own in case the US troops withdraw from the country. A western journalist has described present-day Afghanistan as a Swiss cheese in which holes represent the Ghani government’s position while the bulk represents the Taliban position on the ground. In this scenario, holding peace talks and negotiation for peace in Afghanistan seems to be the only logical way ahead.
In terms of geopolitical shifts, Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia as well as Central Asian states sharing borders with Afghanistan (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) are emerging as a regional block to forge a common position on Afghanistan. On the other hand the US, Afghanistan and India by default share identical positions. However, participation of two retired Indian ambassadors in the Moscow event was a clear indication from the Indian government that the ground realities in Afghanistan are fast changing and that pragmatism demanded to avoid embarrassment of the mid-nineties when it put all its eggs in the erstwhile Northern Alliance’s basket. It must have also dawned upon the Indian policy makers that if US could hold talks with the Taliban because of the growing influence of the group, the future scenario might sway in favor of the group.
In Moscow, demeanor of the Taliban must have struck the observers; unlike crude and dishevelled appearance of the nineties the Taliban delegation in Moscow gave a much sophisticated and suave look and made a pleasant impact on the audience. Although the people dealing with the Afghanistan crisis knew most of the contents of the statement made by the Taliban leader of the delegation in Moscow, it was noteworthy that he tried to dispel the impression about the Taliban movement as a non-compromising and archaic group of ruthless savages. His advocacy for women rights, including inter alia business and ownership, inheritance, education, work, choosing one’s husband, security, health, and right to good life within the confines of Islam is a change of policy from earlier practices they followed while in government. Similarly their support for polio vaccination to the children belied earlier reports that they considered it as “un-Islamic”. He further discussed the issues of reconstruction, drugs and narcotics along with highlighting the importance of international community’s assistance in this regard.
The Taliban delegation also argued that their agenda did not call for “destroying their own country”. The delegation leader further clarified that “in the past 17 years we have practically proved that we have not interfered in any way in other countries. Similarly, we do not allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against other countries including neighboring countries”. This should serve as Taliban’s assurance in advance to the Americans regarding their (Taliban’s) future conduct towards terrorist organizations. In the same vein, group also demanded removal of Taliban names from the UN Security Council’s sanction committee lists saying that peace negotiations and sanctions were two opposite things.
Due to these developments, speculations on next year’s Presidential Elections in Afghanistan have gained pace in both Kabul and Washington. President Ashraf Ghani will be seeking reelection for another five years. The policy making circles in Washington are discussing the question whether it would be a good idea to hold elections in the middle of peace talks with the Taliban. Because of this, it now appears that the US is hesitant in spending millions of dollars on presidential elections and committing its troops for the process. Such an exercise may turn out to be futile if a rapprochement is struck with the Taliban and a new set up is agreed upon by all major stakeholders.
On the other hand, in terms of the urgency of Afghan peace process, the US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, tasked with holding Peace talks with the Taliban, was recently described by the Wall Street Journal as a “man in a hurry”. He has reportedly given himself “ between six months to one year” to conclude his task, which is widely interpreted as a withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. However, whether Mr. Khalilzad would succeed to extract some guarantees from the Taliban for the existing dispensation in Kabul would be a moot point. Secondly, whether the US would seek its token presence in Afghanistan or whether Taliban would agree to such an arrangement would continue to be a point of discussion among the stakeholders. Most importantly, any substantial deal would require the Taliban to make concrete commitments towards its conduct, both local and global, and ensure the Afghan territory is not used by terror groups or for terror activities.
Afghanistan, which has seen the longest period of death and destruction during the past four decades, is in a crucial need for peace. Hence it is too early to predict the future course of action in the country that would enable the Afghan stakeholders to adopt to bring peace to their war ravaged country. However, the Moscow summit offers a glimmer of hope to adopt a course that can silence the guns on both sides. We can all hope that, for the sake of Afghanistan and the Afghans, this happens sooner rather than later.