Afghanistan: Process begins again, but where is the Peace?

Written by The Frontier Post

Iqbal Khan

Three months after President Donald Tr-ump abruptly called off peace talks with the Afghan Taliban, the United States has resumed the dialogue process in Doha over the weekend. Pakistan has welcomed the resumption of the US-Taliban talks. “We hope that it will lead to intra-Afghan negotiations and ultimately to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Pakistan encourages all parties to the conflict to engage constructively as a shared responsibility”, foreign office spokesperson said.

The US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, on his way to Doha, made a surprise stopover in Kabul on December 04 to take the Afghan government into confidence over American decision to restart the stalled peace process. This was a follow up on President Trump’s visit to Afghanistan and to discuss the way forward in already accelerated efforts to get all parties to the intra-Afghan negotiations on board. Poor President Ashraf Ghani had nothing to say, hapless Ghani was still struggling to ward off embarrassment from his, November 28, photo gone viral showing him gleefully being searched at Bagram air base, prior to his meeting with President Trump.

TRT World reported: “Since Trump took over the White House, he has not been keen on meeting Ghani. However, there’s a first time for everything. But in this case, it appeared to be bad timing for Ghani himself. The Afghan President was standing between Trump and his soldiers in his very own country. He held a short speech that was not just fawning but in fact a total submission to the United States and its ongoing ‘War on Terror’. At the same time, Trump didn’t seem at all interested in what Ghani’s had to say and sent him to the back amidst the soldiers.  Trump made it clear that he wanted to restart peace talks with the Taliban – words that should be considered a slap in the face of the Kabul government”.

The resumption of talks was on the cards right from the disruption moment. The US and Taliban have all along been talking to each other informally. Pakistan has played a key part in persuading the two sides to restart the process. Since disruption, Pakistan has been pushing for the resumption of talks. During October, Pakistan hosted the Afghan Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and arranged a meeting between the US special envoy and the Taliban delegation. Though no details were shared by either side, sources familiar with the talks revealed that the focus of discussion was on the ceasefire or at least reduction of violence by all sides, and some progress was made. Other players including China, Russia and Saudi Arabia have also been trying to persuade the Taliban to show flexibility in their approach.

In September, when the talks were trumped, citing Taliban’s continued attacks targeting the American soldiers, a draft agreement was ready to be signed on the anniversary of 9/11. The reason Trump had a second thought of signing peace deal was the criticism he faced both at home and even from the Afghan government that the Taliban had offered little concessions in return of US agreeing to withdraw troops. Associated Press had reported that Trump said the Taliban “wants to make a deal” including a ceasefire. But the insurgents later said it was “way too early” to speak of resuming direct talks with Washington.

The then draft agreement was to deal with the timeline of US troops withdrawal while a commitment from the Taliban of not allowing the Afghan soil to be used by terrorist groups against other countries. However, there was no word either on the ceasefire or intra-Afghan dialogue in that proposed deal. After walking out of the peace process, Trump then stepped up campaign against the Taliban in order to talk to them from a position of strength. Taliban throughout the peace process have maintained that they would discuss the ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue only once their deal with the US is finalised. Both the US and Afghan government have been pushing for a ceasefire, ostensibly,  not just to create the conducive environment for peace deal but also to assess if the Taliban leadership has any control over their foot soldiers.

Sustained US-Afghan operations combating the Afghanistan branch of Daesh has, reportedly, led to a near-collapse of Daesh jihadist group in eastern Afghanistan, thus clearing an oft cited hurdle for US withdrawal from the country. President Donald Trump touted success of recent operations against the Islamic extremist group during his Thanksgiving Day visit to American troops at Bagram Airfield detailing that US forces were “wiping” out ISIS militants “left and right.” “There’s almost nothing left in this area. And al-Qaida, the same thing. And tremendous progress,” Trump told US troops during the visit. However, The New York Times has reported that the number of ISIS militants had dwindled down to roughly 300 from previous estimates of several thousand fighters. National security experts oft warn of the plethora of terror groups—up to 20 in number—as a reason to maintain US troop presence in Afghanistan.

Interestingly, a recent Defence Department inspector general report has noted that despite US efforts to seek a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, terrorists groups in the country will still remain a threat. For that the US will need to maintain a “robust” counterterrorism capacity for the “foreseeable future,” in Afghanistan. And number of US troop to remain in Afghanistan would depend on how many terrorist groups the US thinks as a threat.

Such open ended assessments cater for fitting into any setting that Trump may pronounce for Afghanistan, alongside his usual U-turns, summersaults etc. The process has begun, but where is peace?

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