Afghan peace process: Still a directionless effort?

Iqbal Khan

Like 19th century circus, wandering Afghan peace process is jockeying from town to town. Desire to hold a round of theatrics in Islamabad by the US and Pakistan and aversion of Taliban to talk to Afghan government anywhere on the planet indicates that there is a long way to go before the Afghan peace talks could take a meaningful start. During the fifth trip of US Special Envoy Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to Pakistan, both sides reiterated their shared intent of an Afghan led and Afghan owned political settlement of Afghan conflict. President Ashraf Ghani has also thanked Pakistan for making efforts to kick-start Taliban-Afghan government dialogue. Brief arrest of a senior Taliban leader Hafiz Mohibullah in Peshawar underlines a push by Pakistan government to pressure the insurgents to open talks with the Afghan government. Taliban have so far refused to talk to the Afghan government, which they dismiss as a puppet regime.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the dispute highlights a split that has emerged among countries with an interest in the region, with Pakistan and the US pushing Taliban to open talks with Kabul and other countries, including Iran, supporting the Taliban’s stance; “Iran and Qatar are supporting Taliban’s way but Pakistan is saying what the Afghan government and the US wanted”.

Islamabad fears that any hasty withdrawal of foreign forces could trigger an uncontrolled collapse of the Afghan government, leaving a vacuum that could send tens of thousands of refugees across the border. Afghanistan routinely accuses Islamabad of providing support to the Taliban. Pakistani officials deny this but say they have a degree of influence which they have been using to try to persuade the movement to accept peace talks.

Core US interest is to maintain ‘permanent bases’ in Afghanistan. And that’s been the sticking point in the ongoing talks. President Trump has given Special Envoy six months, out of which he has almost consumed three. While in Pakistan he held talks with national leadership. He held talks with foreign office and Army Chief regarding the Afghan peace process, negotiations process with Afghan Taliban and timeframe for US military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. His visit to Pakistan was part of a larger two weeks sojourn to four countries of this region including China, India and Afghanistan, with an aim to “facilitate a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan”.

The US State Department has stated that its Special envoy continues to coordinate his peace efforts with President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and other Afghan stakeholders to ensure forward traction of an intra-Afghan peace process. During his earlier visit in December, Khalilzad had reiterated that the only solution to the Afghan conflict was for all parties to sit together and reach an agreement on the political future of the country with mutual respect and acceptance.

Taliban think: “The United States agreed during the Doha meeting in the month of November 2018 about discussing the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and preventing Afghanistan from being used against other countries in the upcoming meeting”. And the US “is now backing away from that agenda and is [now] unilaterally adding new subjects.”

The latest push for seeking a political solution to the war has brought back Saudi Arabia and the UAE at the centre stage in the Afghan peace process. The US, through the greater involvement of these countries, wants to put pressure on the Taliban to accept its main demands.

And since then, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been trying to convince the Taliban to accept the US demand in return for a major share in the Afghan government and other incentives. But Taliban are not taking the bait and have refused to participate if any further talks at these two venue, they prefer to revert back to Doha. Pakistan is aware that Afghanistan will continue to need huge amounts of foreign aid to keep its shattered economy afloat after any peace settlement. In a statement, the Taliban have said America must pursue the peace talks with “sincere intentions” or they “will be forced to stall all talks and negotiations until America ends her unlawful pressures and manoeuvring and steps forward towards true peace.” Taliban cancelled the fourth round of peace talks with the US special envoy in Afghanistan over an “agenda disagreement.”

As of now, maintaining long-term military bases and firm guarantees of the Afghan soil not being used again to stage attacks in the West and other countries are two major US demands in talks with Taliban. In exchange, America along with its western as well as Arab allies would provide substantial financial assistance for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan through a comprehensive peace deal. Although the Taliban have repeatedly demanded complete withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan, they showed an inclination to discuss the suggestion of the US maintaining certain bases in the recent negotiations held in the UAE.

Americans have conceded that its bases would have no role in the Afghan security but are meant for maintaining presence for an overall regional stability. Other peripheral objective is to keep close contact with the future Afghan governments in order to ensure that the country does not become a safe haven for any terrorist organisations.

Pakistan is not averse to the US’ demands but wants a ‘regional consensus’ on it since permanent presence of the US military in Afghanistan would certainly raise eyebrows in Russia, Iran and even China. These countries fear that the US may use the Afghan soil to advance its own strategic designs in the region. For this, Pakistan is striving to evolve a regional consensus.