“Someone once said that a minesweeper makes only two mistakes: the first is when he decides to be one. The second…” A Russian soldier said that about Afghanistan in his account of the Soviet invasion of the country. The Soviets had decided to become the minesweepers then that was their first mistake. The second…
Two mistakes are all you get to make as a minesweeper.
America has made both in Afghanistan.
But now, it seems, it’s time for peace. In unprecedented talks between the US and the Taliban, with the blessings of all stakeholders, peace in Afghanistan is finally a real possibility.
Moscow has opened its banquet halls for its previously sworn enemies, and for the previously sworn enemies of their previously sworn enemies.
Earlier this week, the Taliban high command prayed together with Hamid Karzai and the rest of the Afghan opposition. The very opposition that had waged war against the Taliban for almost a decade before being voted out of power. They had dinner together and then they went on to negotiate the future of the eternally war-torn country. Missing from the cordiality was Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Where is Ashraf Ghani? In Kabul, Ashraf Ghani is endangered. The Taliban today controls more territory in Afghanistan than they have at any point since the Taliban regime in Kabul was toppled in 2001. The Afghan security forces are reeling from almost decades of heavy losses inflicted upon them by the Taliban. Afghan state institutions are corrupt to the extent of being dysfunctional as billions of dollars in foreign aid meant for Kabul’s fledgling security apparatus continues to vanish into thin air. And, president Ashraf Ghani has been unable to consolidate power in Kabul, as required for his government to become a serious player in Afghanistan’s future. Ghani faces astounding marginalisation, not just from the expected quarters in the Taliban, Moscow and Islamabad, but from Washington itself. Ghani’s a bad bet now that the Taliban are willing to talk. With the Afghan opposition racing to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban, there’s no need for the fledgling government in Kabul to be taken into confidence. What’s more, the Taliban won’t let Ghani enter the fray.
In the White House, Donald Trump is cautiously optimistic. The arrival of Donald Trump has been a blessing in, admittedly, a very thick disguise. Trump’s isolationist policy for the US meant that after initially vowing to bolster the US troop numbers in Afghanistan, Washington is now in a best-worst-case scenario mode and looking to pull out. The US intelligence agencies and the White House have convinced a reluctant Pentagon to appreciate the futility of America’s fight against the Taliban. Every day that US troops remain in Afghanistan, the extent of their failure becomes evident, nay, glaring. With Kabul controlling less than half of Afghan territory, daily casualties for Afghan security forces highlight America’s consistent inability to, in any way, control the Taliban’s ability to reach Kabul. In a world where America’s superpower status faces unprecedented threats from Brussels to Moscow to Beijing, the fact that the largest and most efficient war machine in the history of mankind has been unable to defeat a militia carrying replica Kalashnikovs for almost two decades now, is terrifyingly embarrassing for DC. Besides, it’s a win-win for a beleaguered President Trump; young American boys come back home as America absolves itself of the responsibility to protect an endlessly inept government in Kabul from an exceedingly resurgent Taliban force. But besides the incessant need of the arrangement, there is substantial credit due to the American president. While the solution was becoming glaringly clear, it was largely Trump’s ‘art of the deal’ style of negotiating which led to an almost permanent presence of an all-star, well-equipped and determined US diplomatic team that has negotiated with the Taliban relentlessly. And so, the speed at which Trump is executing the withdrawal and bringing the Taliban to the table, and ultimately helping the cause of peace in Afghanistan is creditable.
In Islamabad, Imran Khan is dynamic. The US senators and diplomats throng Islamabad these days. Lindsey Graham, the hawkish senator who called for military action against Pakistan, wants Trump to meet the Pakistani PM to advance peace in Afghanistan. Islamabad and Rawalpindi are facilitating the Afghan peace process. Pakistan has helped bring the US and the Taliban to the negotiating table while facing continuous vitriol from Kabul. Islamabad has played its role in the Afghan peace process with or without the government in Kabul which has been unreasonably reluctant to engage. This approach by Islamabad stands vindicated as the Americans negotiate with the Taliban in Doha, and the Russians facilitate talks between the Afghan opposition and the Taliban in Moscow, all without the presence of Ghani’s government.
The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the Department of State, Zalmay Khalilzad, says “nothing is agreed, until everything is agreed.” It’s still early days in the Afghan peace process. But what’s important is that there is now an actual Afghan peace process, one that has the acquiescence of the belligerents and the blessings of Washington, Islamabad, Beijing and Moscow. This is groundbreaking for an endlessly unfortunate country that has suffered relentlessly for decades in seemingly eternal conflict. Ghani’s exclusion from this peace process is unfortunate but ultimately a product of Ghani’s own miscalculation. The Afghan president wanted to consolidate his position before he gave his blessing to the negotiations, wanting to be taken more seriously by all the stakeholders. His approach has backfired.
The negotiations need to go ahead to ensure peace in a country that has suffered for far too long, and any party that becomes an impediment to this peace, or a facilitator of the same, does so at the risk of, or for the reward of, being judged decisively by history, for either failing or succeeding to achieve long-awaited peace for a most unfortunate people.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2019.
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