While the world is paralysed by the Covid-19 virus, the peace process in Afghanistan still seems to be inching forward. A three-member Taliban team arrived in Kabul this past week to monitor the release of their prisoners by the Afghan government, which was an important part of implementing the recent peace deal between the Taliban and the US.
Keeping the Afghan peace deal on track has been complicated by the internal political turmoil and the ongoing rivalry between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. The Taliban’s peace deal which would allow the US to eventually withdrawal its 13,000 soldiers from Afghanistan is contingent upon Taliban guarantees to fight militant groups with global ambitions, like the IS, as well as negotiating with the Afghan government.
The ongoing discord between Ghani and Abdullah prompted Washington to threaten cutting $1 billion in assistance to Afghanistan and increasing financial penalties in the next year. This threat has worked for now, but the challenge of stabilising the country is far from over.
Developing an intra-Afghan compromise is a necessary step for ending the relentless violence in the country. However, there are many complicated issues which make peace-building a complicated process. An intra-Afghan settlement requires not just a compromise between the two major political factions in the Afghan government and the Taliban but also amongst several regional actors. Besides Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, and India are also major regional actors with a vested interest in what happens in Afghanistan.
The academic, Hassan Abbas, writing for the Center for Global Policy, makes a few good points which deserve the attention of all stakeholders working on this issue. He points out that while Pakistan enjoys influence over the old guard within the Afghan Taliban (Mullah Baradar, the Haqqanis and Mullah Haibatullah), the Taliban are no longer a homogenous group. Today they include a range of autonomous field commanders, aligned with drug smuggling networks, and a new generation of insurgents inspired by a variety of local interests. Moreover, the creation of the Qatar shura has enabled another powerbroker to now compete with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, the UAE and Pakistan, to nurture and fund its own Taliban factions.
Pakistan needs the Taliban to prevent Indian influence in Afghanistan, but this can only happen if the Taliban factions which Pakistan yields influence over can exert significant control over a new government as well as Afghan foreign policymaking. Yet, anti-Taliban personnel currently dominate the civil bureaucracy and military in Afghanistan, and they will resist a Taliban takeover, which could further paralyse governance and peace building. Conversely, the Taliban’s political dominance of Afghanistan is not only unlikely, it would not be an entirely optimal outcome for Pakistan either, as it would complicate Pakistan’s internal political landscape with religious parties gaining momentum and pushing Pakistan toward further conservatism and extremism.
As things stand, the people of Afghanistan are craving peace, but competing Taliban factions are vying for as much power as they can get alongside the political elites, who are struggling against each other, while being weary of sharing power with the Taliban. Intra-Afghan negotiations, which must commence after the current prisoner exchange process is undertaken, will probably be messy and time consuming.
The negotiations will need credible mediators who can put aside their own vested interests. It is worth recognising for all concerned stakeholders that no single country or group can control or direct the course of future events in Afghanistan. Punitive financial action by the US to make Kabul fall in line may have helped chide the Afghan political factions to cooperate with the Taliban for the time being. Sustaining the peace process will, however, require collective regional action, and sustained international support, as well as compromises by varied local political actors and factions within the Taliban.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 3rd, 2020.
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