The Afghan peace process remains stalled.
Pakistan has been putting pressure on the Taliban leadership to show greater flexibility in negotiations with the United States. It has been insistent that the Taliban agree to a ceasefire to create a favourable environment for talks and also engage with the Afghan government. In these endeavours, there has been partial progress.
There are still hurdles in finalising the much-awaited peace agreement. The haste shown by President Trump earlier in finalising a deal with the Taliban apparently did not go well with the US military leadership. They wanted to extract more concessions from the Taliban to protect American interests and accommodate the demands of the Afghan government and other political groups in the future setup. President Trump was also facing impeachment and would not take a decision on Afghanistan that could be divisive or distract him in this critical period.
The US has been pressing the Taliban for an unequivocal commitment that no space would be provided to the al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Taliban would have no objection in committing to this undertaking for that would also undermine their authority. The US is probably not that insistent about the presence of IS though.
Many other issues have stalled the peace process. Foremost, the Taliban have been adamant that the US gives a definite date of withdrawal from Afghanistan. No agreement has been reached on this as yet.
The Afghan people have suffered enormously from the conflict and Pakistan too has paid a heavy price of its fallout. The invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union in the late 1970s and the subsequent armed struggle against it had adverse consequences for Pakistan for having played a major role. The US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 and subsequent occupation of it for the last 19 years has already ravaged the country. The Afghans desperately deserve a negotiated peace based on a formal exchange of obligations between the Taliban and the US. Every effort should be made by Afghanistan’s neighbours to facilitate the peace process. The fruits of genuine peace in Afghanistan outweigh any trivial considerations of neighbouring countries.
There are other factors that are hindering the peace process and adding to the complexity of the situation. The Taliban leadership itself is not that cohesive and command and control is somewhat lax. Many of the Taliban leaders, for fear of being targeted, are spread out and hiding in border areas. There is no single leader that has a hold over them, as was the case during Mullah Omar’s time. For fear of being located, the leadership has given autonomy to their cadres to take decisions on their own. Several Taliban families are residing in Pakistan and that brings its leadership here occasionally. In some ways, this reality gives Pakistan extra leverage over the Taliban than its other neighbours and also places greater responsibility on it.
There is another major consideration that should not be overlooked in our Afghan strategy. No doubt, the realisation of peace in Afghanistan would stabilise the border and facilitate trade and commerce — but the chances of this to happen are fairly remote.
The emergence of the Taliban as the dominant player in Afghanistan has consequences for Pakistan that need to be addressed seriously. It could reinvigorate the TTP that has been lying low mostly in the border areas of Afghanistan and has comfortably co-existed with the Taliban.
Clearly, it is the Afghan people’s prerogative to choose their leaders but in the prevailing conditions it is unlikely to happen, as the Taliban leadership is unwilling to participate in any elections and base their legitimacy on the pretext of being in power when they were forcibly removed by the US invasion of Afghanistan. It is true that they were in power but it was not through any elections but after succeeding in an armed struggle. The Taliban are clearly averse to democracy and are determined to impose their version of theocratic dispensation. Their disdain for the Afghan government can be assessed from the fact that they consider them as American puppets and have avoided any engagement with them despite US insistence.
There is a view that once the Americans leave, the Taliban will work out a power-sharing agreement with different Afghan power groups including President Ashraf Ghani’s political party, Hizb-e-Islami. President Ghani recognises the Taliban as a political party and would want them to participate in elections. Despite these overtures, expecting conciliation from the Taliban would be an optimistic assessment. The Taliban feel that they are entitled to be rewarded for their protracted struggle and sacrifices — not realising that the common people in Afghanistan have suffered as much.
Another possible development once America withdraws would be the intensification of civil war. The Pakistani military has already taken precautionary measures, including the fencing of the border to minimise the spillover effect.
It is unfortunate that despite the severe consequences that Pakistan has faced due to the spillover of the Afghan civil war, we have not won over the confidence of successive Afghan governments. Granted there are certain inherent insecurities associated with landlocked developing countries and the Indians have played a major role as a spoiler. It is possible that India’s role in Afghanistan and our strategic thinking being too India-centric has not gone well with successive Afghan governments. Our policies were perceived as undue interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Lately, serious efforts have been made to allay these misgivings and the COAS, General Bajwa, has played a major role to reassure the Afghan government of our sincerity. Pakistan’s association with the Taliban leadership has been viewed as influencing the Afghan power dynamics. We have defended our position but more effort is still needed to convince the Afghan government and the Afghans of it.
Pakistan’s interests would be best served if the Taliban and other Afghan factions cooperate in building an effective state that stands ravaged due to years of internal conflict. It could change the entire dynamic of the region, but as of now it seems a distant possibility.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2020.
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