Self-destruct approaches to Afghan peace

Iqbal Khan

Much hyped expectation for a breakthrough in a push to end Afghan conflict has suffered yet another major setback. Trumped up intra-Afghan conference between the Taliban and Afghan government officials has been deferred without specifying the next date. This Doha meeting was not a part of ongoing direct talks between the Taliban and the US. The dialogue fell apart on the eleventh hour in a row over a large number of delegates Kabul government wanted to send. After US-Taliban talks in February, US Special Representative to Afghanistan, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had announced that a “draft framework” for a peace deal was ready, though he warned of major hurdles.

While the insurgents did meet with Afghan politicians outside the government in Moscow in February, they have steadfastly refused to meet with Ghani and his administration, which they view as a puppet regime. Taliban now control or influence more than half the Afghan territories. Last year had witnessed fierce violence in the country, causing a very high number of non-combatant casualties; mainly resulting out of military actions by occupation forces.

The US has signalled its disappointment over collapse of conference, and urged both sides to return to the table. Zalmay Khalilzad said he was “disappointed…We’re in touch with all parties and encouraged that everyone remains committed to dialogue.” Sultan Barakat, who heads the group that was to host the event, said in a statement the postponement was “necessary to build further consensus as to who should participate”. “Clearly the moment is not yet right,” added Barakat, the director of the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies.

President Ashraf Ghani’s administration had announced a list of 250 people from all walks of Afghan life, including government figures, to attend the conference. Taliban said that they had “no plans” to meet with so many people. The conference is “not an invitation to some wedding or other party at a hotel in Kabul,” the Taliban said. Even though Taliban had stated that they would only talk to Ghani officials in a “personal capacity”, any contact between the two parties in Doha would have been a leap forward.  Taliban delegation also included women. Women were included for the first time in the Taliban delegation. The peace process thus far had been widely criticised for a lack of female representation, and US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had been pushing for greater inclusivity.

Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesman said the conference was planned with similar guidelines as that of Moscow summit, where all participants had expressed their own personal views regarding the Afghan issue. “However, the Kabul administration officials launched efforts to introduce this conference as a negotiation meeting between the Kabul administration and the Islamic Emirate, a position in conflict with the policy of the conference,” he said in the statement. Ashraf Ghani and Umar Daudzai repeatedly held press conferences to create such impression.

And just as all the arrangements for the conference were finalised, the Kabul administration officials launched their own bizarre meetings inside the Arg palace, announcing their red lines and conditions, claiming host status for the conference, deliberately creating turmoil. Taliban spokesperson vowed that the group would continue its “legitimate struggle until true peace prevails and an intra-Afghan Islamic system is established.” Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Centre commented that the conference “mess and its dysfunction amplifies just how much of a long, hard slog a reconciliation process will be,” he told AFP.  Even some of Ghani representatives dropped out, slamming the guest list as rigged to politically strengthen the president.

Afghanistan government had published, in advance, a lengthy list of delegates who would meet with the Taliban, including government officials, in what was projected as highest-level dialogue. List comprised 250 names, including President Ashraf Ghani’s chief of staff, Abdul Salam Rahimi, as well as his election running mate, Amrullah Saleh, the former head of Afghan intelligence etc. Delegates included 52 women as well. They represented diverse walks of Afghan life. While the Taliban previously met with Afghan representatives and politicians in Moscow in February, those talks did not include members of Ghani’s government. Kabul had also been left out of the talks with the Khalilzad, prompting concerns that Afghan government is being side-lined. The last time Taliban met with the Afghan government was during talks under the banner of Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), in Pakistan, in 2015-16.

Days before the meeting, Taliban had announced the start of Operation Fath (Victory), this year’s spring offensive, and violence has since continued across Afghanistan despite Khalilzad calling for a ceasefire. The Taliban launched attacks near the northern city of Kunduz and in Kabul, just hours after announcing the start of the spring offensive.

The US has condemned the announcement of spring offensive by Taliban, Khalilzad has called upon Pakistan, Qatar, and other nations to condemn the announcement as well. “The Taliban’s spring offensive announcement is reckless. It is irresponsible to suggest that an increase in violence is warranted because the government announced a security plan. The Afghan people have clearly voiced their desire for peace,” Khalilzad said in a statement.

The United Nations Security Council has also condemned Taliban for announcing a spring offensive and called on all parties to, instead, seize the opportunity to begin talks. In a unanimous statement, the council said the Taliban’s announcement will “only result in more unnecessary suffering and destruction for the Afghan people.” Situation in Afghanistan is messier than all projections; and Afghan peace process is a complicated enterprise. This alongside American effort to make-believe their end agreement with Taliban as an astounding American victory is making the prospects for a sustainable peace rather elusive.