The announcement of President Trump to snap the peace talks with the Taliban, when a final agreement was imminent, has sent shock waves among the stakeholders around the globe, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Analysts are intrigued by whether Donald Trump’s action was an impromptu knee jerk reaction or a well-thought-out decision. The whole situation needs to be analysed in the perspective of the Afghan history, opinions of American politicians and analysts, concerns of Afghan and Pakistani intelligentsia, contours of the agreement, and participation of the Afghan government and other segments of Afghan society in the peace process.
The Afghan peace process has run into snags as it did not consider the long history of the Afghan problem. The shadows of the past still hover over the present. We have witnessed the USSR’s entry in Afghanistan, the activities of the so-called mujahideen to sabotage the Saur Revolution, the Geneva Accord of 1988 with the US and USSR as guarantors, the Peshawar Accord of 1998 which accommodated warring factions in the government and USSR’s withdrawal of 1992, Dr Najibullah’s policy of national reconciliation and his gruesome murder in gross violation of diplomatic norms. Seen from that perspective, the process was flawed from the word go as it ignored the fundamental fact that the Taliban had not ascended to power through the ballot but the sheer power of the bullet. Dissent in their regime meant instant death — a clear disdain for democracy. The other important fact ignored was that the Taliban was one of the many groups bracing themselves for power through the bullet, but they are in no way the sole representatives of Afghanistan.
The talks revolved around four elements: the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan; no use of Afghan soil for exporting terrorism; establishing a ceasefire; and holding an intra-Afghan dialogue amidst the scheduled elections in Afghanistan. The Taliban insisted on the complete withdrawal of US forces within a short timeframe, without conceding either to cease fire or include the Afghan government or other groups in the peace agreement with the US. They continued to unleash violence refreshing the scars of the horror of their rule. Insistence only on the withdrawal of troops and holding of intra-Afghan dialogue subsequent to the agreement was like putting the cart before the horse. Analysts in Trump’s team had been painting a bleak picture for the future of Afghanistan without gaining much in return. The declaration of the US President, therefore, does not appear to have come on the spur of the moment. This author, in an earlier piece published in this daily, had also remarked that the seventh round of parleys had raised several question marks. The declaration had pledged efforts for eliminating civilian casualties and empowering women by giving them their due role in political, social, economic, educational and cultural affairs. Even the US Representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, had declared, “It was important to remember we seek a comprehensive peace agreement, not a withdrawal agreement.”
The subsequent rounds of talks logically should have also been in the direction of a comprehensive peace. But the Taliban, apparently intoxicated with the power of the gun, continued with unending violence, looking contemptuously at other groups including the Afghan government. The gruesome murderous attack outside a US compound, killing a US soldier, to gain more on the diplomatic table proved to be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The overtures of the Taliban’s negotiators had been of victors over the vanquished, all set to impose their brand of government upon the rest. Realising the gravity of the situation, a number of analysts had been sharing their concerns over the possibility of a civil war situation in the future. This is all the more possible as many Afghan leaders have publicly expressed their resolve of forging an anti-Taliban alliance to resist Talibanisation of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops.
The opinion-making writers and policymakers in the US seem to be suggesting that the talks process is not completely dead but has rather been suspended for the time being. Backchannel diplomacy, therefore, can be expected to continue with the Taliban, other segments of the Afghan society and the Afghan government for arriving at a workable deal. Road to peace in Afghanistan lies in the cessation of violence by all parties, an all-inclusive dialogue, holding of elections and Taliban’s consent to participate in elections. No deal can bring durable peace unless negotiations are guided by the core principle that ballot is the medium to properly gauge the popularity of any group and not the bullet.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2019.