Troops withdrawal, peace talks and US failure in Afghanistan

By Umer Farooq

A decision that stunned both the Pentagon and the Afghan government, the Trump administration, today, announced withdrawal of 7000 troops from Afghanistan. With this decision, coupled with the decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis also tendering his resignation, the US security and policy making circles have been sent in a frenzy.

However, with the decision on Afghanistan – which would cut the US military strength to half in the country – has the US finally accepted defeat after 17 long years in Afghanistan? Moreover, one also wonders whether this decision is directly related to the active peace negotiations taking place between the Taliban and the US government.

The latest peace efforts in Afghanistan are being facilitated by Islamabad on the request of Washington. In March 2018, another such attempt proved to be a non-starter. The Tashkent Conference, held in March, was attended by foreign ministers from five central Asia states, three of which (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) border Afghanistan, and officials from the Afghan government. Diplomats from important Western countries including Britain, USA, and France, along with Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE also took part in the conference.

The Tashkent Conference witnessed participation from all of Afghanistan’s neighbours including three central Asian states along with Pakistan, Iran and China. At least three of these states – Pakistan, Turkmenistan and China – have been engaged in an extensive diplomatic activity of their own to organise peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The Tashkent Conference was organised in the backdrop of the rising threat of IS in Afghanistan and Central Asian States, along with Russia, are particularly threatened by the rise of the group in Northern parts of Afghanistan. Many of Afghanistan’s neighbour believe that the Afghan government on its own does not have the capacity to deal with the threat of IS.

The stated objective of the conference was to bring the Taliban and the Afghan government back to the negotiating table. This is not the first time the Uzbek government is taking interests in peace efforts in the war torn country: In 1999, the Uzbek government also facilitated peace efforts to bring Taliban and the then Northern Alliance — a military alliance of Non-Pashto speaking minorities — to the negotiating table. Those efforts also failed. In the recent past, Pakistanis, Saudis, Chinese and many other regional players have made efforts to bring Afghan Taliban and Afghan government across the table for negotiations.

At least two different tracks of talks with Taliban have been going on since 2011: The first track was organised by the US and Western intelligence agencies in Germany (and about which US officials informed Pakistani military in December 2011). The second track included few rounds of talks between representatives of Karzai government and the Taliban commanders organised by Saudi Foreign Ministry in the port city of Jeddah in 2012.

In November 2011, a senior visiting US official disclosed to the then Pakistan’s Army Chief Ashfaq Kiyani that their diplomats were holding secret talks with the Taliban in Germany. The disclosure came with the request that Pakistani intelligence should give protection to America’s Taliban interlocutors. General Kiyani, not sounding surprised, instead informed the visiting US official that he knew about the US-Taliban contacts through his own sources. However General Kiyani was surprised by the demand that Pakistan was to protect the head of the Taliban delegation and his team, who were holding talks with Americans and were then in Pakistan.

The head of Taliban delegation, Tayyab Agha, a close aide of Mullah Omar, had served in the Afghan embassy in Islamabad while Taliban were still ruling Afghanistan. Agha – a Taliban official associated with the Taliban foreign ministry – had travelled to Germany to hold talks with American officials on a Pakistani passport. The American request to the Pakistani military for providing protection to Agha and two others stemmed from the fear that Al-Qaida, or possibly some extremist elements within the Taliban, could attempt to eliminate the Taliban interlocutors after the secret talks became an open secret.

Later, the talks that Pakistan arranged between the Taliban and the Afghan government did not succeed primarily because the Taliban continued to engage in violence inside Afghanistan. Officials in Islamabad’s security circles, however, denied that Pakistan had unqualified leverage over the Taliban. “Just because we have admitted that we have lines of communication open with the Taliban does not mean that we can force them to make a particular decision,” said a government official.

In 2015, Sartaj Aziz, the then advisor to Pakistan’s Prime Minster on Foreign Affairs, said, “The Threat of the use of military action against irreconcilables (Taliban) cannot precede the offer of talks to all the groups and their response to such an offer”. He was telling the Afghan side that they should not attach any pre-conditions to talks and should create conducive atmosphere for talks along with not setting a deadline. Hence, as a result, the talks never took off.

However, the relative breaking of ice in the recent talks between the Taliban and the US representative Zalmay Khalilzad has kick-started the Afghan peace process once again. And with the US decision to withdraw further troops from Afghanistan, a major condition put forward by the Taliban for negotiations, Afghanistan might finally see an end to the 17-year long conflict laden with bloodshed and chaos.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.

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