Taliban leadership has once again demonstrated its effective control over its rank and file by implementing a three days ceasefire on the eve of Eid. Taliban’s political spokesman had also indicated readiness to hold talks with Kabul’s political leaders after the Eid at the end of the month, provided the prisoner release is completed. Much-awaited intra-Afghan dialogue is expected to resume soon as the Afghan government and Taliban have almost completed the prisoners swap, a key precondition for the start of the next phase of pear process. The dialogue will decided the future political dispensation of Afghanistan and the role of Taliban.
On August 02, the US State Department issued a statement that its special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was again shuttling through the region seeking to jump start those negotiations, which have been repeatedly postponed as both sides squabble over a prisoner release program. “The parties are closer than ever to the start of intra-Afghan negotiations”, “Although significant progress has been made on prisoner exchanges, the issue requires additional effort to fully resolve.” said the statement.
In an interview with Axios, on August 03, President Donald Trump said he “expects US troops in Afghanistan to be under 5,000 by Election Day in November. Troop level in Afghanistan has already dropped by more than 3,000 personnel this year, American military footprint has reached the magic figure of 8,500 troops; only a shade lower than the figure when Trump assumed presidency in 2017.Trump said that he expected the troop levels to drop by half “very soon.” “We’re going down to 4,000, we’re negotiating right now,” Trump said. “I don’t want to tell you (when). But I’ve always said we will get largely out.” When asked what the levels would be on Election Day in November, Trump said he expected “between 4,000 and 5,000? troops there.
Under the deal with Taliban, the US side is committed to withdraw all foreign forces from Afghanistan by July 2021. In return, Taliban have pledged to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghan soil for attacks, and to seek reconciliation with other Afghan groups.
Military leaders and many members of Congress have cautioned against too quick of a withdrawal from the region, saying it could destabilize Afghan security forces currently receiving support and logistical help from the US service members. In July, House lawmakers in a bipartisan vote approved limits on the administration’s power to reduce the US troops numbers in Afghanistan below 8,000 without meeting clear security benchmarks first. Senate is yet to approve of it.
Concurrent to Trump’s interview, Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed the hope that the next phase of Afghan peace process would start soon, leading to the “peaceful end of the lingering conflict”. During an Eid Greeting tele-conversation with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, both discussed a host of issues, including Afghan peace process. Two leaders discussed the latest stage in the Afghan peace process. Prime Minister Imran highlighted Pakistan’s positive contribution to the peace process, strongly stressing that “peace in Afghanistan was of paramount importance”. He expressed the hope that “the current momentum would be built further to implement the US-Taliban peace agreement in its entirety, leading to the intra-Afghan negotiations at the earliest”.
As regards the peace process and battle like activities, the United Nations has since long been urging Kabul and Taliban for peace talks and reduction in violence. The number of civilian casualties from fighting in Afghanistan fell in the first half of the year after the Taliban-US pact on February 29.
According to mid-year report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), 3,458 civilians were killed or injured from fighting in Afghanistan in the first six months of the year; 1,282 killed and 2,176 hurt. Afghanistan continues to “face one of the deadliest conflicts in the world despite a 13 percent fall in the casualties in comparison to the same period last year”. Report attributed 43 percent or 1,473 casualties (580 killed and 893 injured) to the Taliban. In contrast, government forces were blamed for attacks in which 789 people were injured (508) or killed (281).
The report said women and children continue to be disproportionately affected by the direct and indirect impacts of the conflict. It recorded 397 women (138 killed and 259 injured), and 1,067 child casualties (340 killed and 727 injured) in the period of report. The victims included 18 religious leaders, 13 healthcare personnel, 11 members from judiciary, 9 civil society activists, 8 NGO workers and three journalists. Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan, has urged the warring parties to stop the “carnage” and get to the negotiating table.
Though hopes are being raised, once again regarding a start of intra-Afghan dialogue, a stalemate persists between Taliban and Kabul with regard to complete release of prisoners— a prerequisite for the start of negotiations. The prisoner exchange, release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners in return of 1,000 captive Afghan security forces, was agreed in a landmark deal between Washington and the Taliban. All Taliban prisoners have not yet been released and some of the released ones have been rearrested.
Another UN report has cautioned about the significant presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Khorasan (ISIL-K) in Afghanistan, which the UN warns now pursues a global agenda. It states that ISIL-K considers Afghan territory a base for spreading terrorist influence across the wider region. The report adds that al-Qaeda is covertly active in 12 Afghan provinces and its leader Aiman al-Zawahiri remains based in Afghanistan. The UN has estimated a total number of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan at between 400 and 600.
In addition, the UN report has reported on the strong presence of ISIL-India in Kerala and Karnataka. A number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan have also been traced back to Indian origin. A big worry for Pakistan is the presence in Afghanistan of militants, particularly linked to the TTP or Jamaat-ul-Ahrar or Lashkar-e-Islam, as well as those with the Baluchistan Liberation Army, which has taken responsibility for high-profile attacks.
Under the circumstan-ces, Trump’s formulation of peace in Afghanistan appears an over simplification. May be this region is still in for a long haul.
Writer is a freelance columnist; e-mail: Iqbemail@example.com.