Afghanistan: hard choices

Global powers and Afghanistan need to make a choice between peace, progress or a continued era of doom and destruction

Syed Akhtar Ali Shah April 09, 2021

Due to the US elections the Afghan peace process had remained stalled amidst a wait-and-see policy by all parties within Afghanistan. After the Democrats’ victory in the elections, the peace process has jump-started once again. It will not be out of place to quote Hillary Clinton that leaders and nations understand the difference between war and peace, poverty and prosperity, and therefore have to make hard choices between at different junctures of history. Today, major global powers and leaders of Afghanistan stand at the crossroads of history to make a choice between peace and progress or a continued era of doom and destruction.

In this context, the Doha Agreement was signed with a noble objective of peace, but reports emanating from various sources such as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) indicated an ever-increasing number of deaths and injuries of the civilian population. On assuming the office of president, Joe Biden announced to review the Doha Agreement as he presumed that objectives of comprehensive peace had not been achieved.

Given this, Secretary of State Antony Blinken floated several proposals in a letter to President Ashraf Ghani, calling for bringing the two sides together for a UN-facilitated conference with foreign ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the US “to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan”. This also simultaneously stresses for holding talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in a senior-level meeting in Turkey in the coming weeks, aiming to work out a revised proposal for a 90-day reduction in violence. Blinken has also opined before the Congress that the US administration would minutely examine the negotiations, to understand the commitments made by the Taliban and observe to what extent the Taliban had progressed in talks with the Afghan government. He also indicated that the US would end the so-called war permanently and withdraw its forces, but would retain a capacity to prevent the re-organisation of terrorists.

In the same vein, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan underscored that the US would support the peace process with a robust and regional diplomatic effort. This would aim to help the two sides achieve a durable and just political settlement and permanent ceasefire. Sullivan also made clarified America’s intention to review the February 2020 US-Taliban agreement, including to assess whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders. In response the Taliban said that they respected the terms of the agreement and had the same expectation from the other side. However, in another statement they threatened that if foreign forces did not withdraw till spring, then the group would launch attacks against foreign forces.

The situation took a new turn with suggested plans of the Biden administration asking for an interim power-sharing government between the Taliban and Afghan leaders, and stepped-up involvement by Afghanistan’s neighbours — including Iran — in the peace process. But, the Afghan President, rejecting the plan, made a counter offer to hold elections within the next six months subject to a ceasefire which is to be unveiled in Turkey. The source of the Presidential Palace also stressed that any future government should be formed through democratic process, not a political deal.

The Afghan government and the Taliban agreed to try to accelerate peace talks, at a meeting in Moscow (the Troika meeting). The US, Russia, China and Pakistan called on Afghanistan’s warring sides to reach an immediate ceasefire.

It may also be mentioned that those countries stressed that they “do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate”. Any peace agreement must include protection for the rights of all Afghans, including women, men, children, victims of war, and minorities, and should respond to the strong desire of all Afghans for economic, social and political development including the rule of law. 

The delegation also called on the Taliban to not to pursue a spring offensive. On the other hand, the Taliban’s deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar told the Moscow conference that Afghans "should be left to decide their own fate" and the world should bear in mind Islamic values, independence and Afghanistan’s national interests. In this back drop, the US has suggested the role of the UN for the resolution of the conflict and monitoring. In another twist, the US President, in his interview with ABC, said that he was reconsidering the agreement with the Taliban and it would be “tough” for the US to meet a May 1 deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan but that the complete drawdown won’t take much longer.

All these ups and downs and analyses suggest that US is not in a hurry to leave Afghanistan. The US is trying to take other stakeholders in the region into confidence by their inclusion in the peace talks. The Troika conference in Moscow was the precursor to be followed by other conferences. President Ghani reiterated his offer of fresh elections and even agreed to step down, if it was accepted at the Heart of Asia Conference.

Mentioning of the UN indicates its increasing role in the future of the peace process. This process may converge into a mediating role and eventually into monitoring of any future elections and a peace keeping role between warring groups, a common practice under international law.

In the background of new developments, it is imperative for the warring factions to agree on a give-and-take strategy. But this requires a conducive environment. It is therefore necessary that as per Pakhtun tradition, parties to the conflict announce a teega, or a ceasefire, and avoid using guns to take over the government. A hard choice for all the parties to the conflict is to sit together, draw a constitution in accordance with the democratic aspirations of the people and to take part in elections under the auspices of the UN. 



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