Recent talks rekindle peace hopes
WASHINGTON’S special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tasked with finding a negotiated end to Afghanistan’s bloody 17-year-old war met with Pakistani officials on Tuesday. A Taliban official said four members from the group’s political office in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar were also in the Pakistani capital. Khalilzad is visiting the region to accelerate peace efforts in Afghanistan; and he wants a peace agreement with the Taliban before upcoming Afghan presidential election in April 2019. Taliban have had unprecedented successes on the battlefield as well as in the recent diplomatic initiatives in Russia and Central Asia. Realizing that Russia could gain immensely, the Taliban have been engaged by the US directly in the dialogue for peace in Afghanistan. However, Taliban would seek not only assurances but amendment to the constitution envisaging a role for the Taliban and would not be taken in by the tactics of US authorities.
Last week, President Donald Trump of the United States wrote a letter to Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan, recognizing that “Pakistan’s assistance with the Afghan peace process is fundamental to building an enduring US-Pakistan partnership.” Though President Donald Trump has been leveling accusations that Pakistan was providing safe havens to insurgents, the contents as well as tone and tenor of his letter are reflective of his change of heart and mind. Instead of asking for ‘doing more’, he sought cooperation, and Pakistan of course assured of every help in bringing peace in the war-torn country. ISPR spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor reportedly told the foreign journalists that Pakistan’s influence over the Afghan Taliban was overstated or exaggerated, yet Pakistan repeatedly told the group to join the peace process. He said the release of senior Taliban officials from Pakistani prisons, including a co-founder of the movement, Mullah Ghani Baradar, was part of the peace process.
Participation of Taliban leaders in Moscow conference on Afghanistan for the first time was emblematic of the Taliban’s desire for real peace in the country. Eleven countries including China, Pakistan, Iran, India and Central Asian States had participated; Afghanistan did not send any official delegation. However, members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which oversees peace efforts but does not represent the Afghan government, were also present. “We discussed the subject of direct talks with the Taliban and asked them to choose the place and the starting time,” said a High Peace Council spokesman. However, Taliban representatives reaffirmed their group’s position that it will not hold direct talks with Afghan government, but ready to have direct talks with the US, and, of course, the objective is that occupation ends. Western officials and the Afghan government view the Moscow talks with some suspicion, fearing that it could derail other efforts at negotiations.
But this is not true, as Taliban have already agreed to hold talks directly with the US and in October US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad along with other American officials had met with Taliban delegation in Doha Qatar to discuss ending the Afghan conflict. Afghan News Agency Tolo had reported that the direct talks were held because Khalilzad sought to coordinate efforts with regional countries, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. During the meeting, Taliban and U.S. negotiators discussed the end of occupation and a peaceful solution in Afghanistan.” Reportedly, the Taliban delegation had stressed the need for a real and Afghan-inclusive solution, and also made it clear that the presence of foreign forces in the country was a major barrier to lasting peace. Both sides had agreed to continue such meetings in the future, the statement added.
The Taliban had long called for bilateral talks with the United States, but Washington had repeatedly refused, insisting the process must be Afghan-led. But under pressure to break the impasse with the group, Washington changed its early stance in June when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said his country was prepared to participate in talks with the Taliban. Pakistan had freed a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, from jail in October at the request of the US so that he could facilitate the peace process in Afghanistan. But the problem is that some of the Afghan government functionaries are not interested in peace because in case of some agreement they will have to share power with the Taliban. Even today, President Ashraf Ghani is surrounded by elements from former Northern Alliance, who do not wish reconciliation with the Taliban because they will have to share power with the group.
There is a perception that while Washington verbally supported the negotiation process, but has the apprehension that peace can diminish the American influence and increase the Russian and Chinese influence. Secondly, if the US completely withdraws from Afghanistan, it will lose strategic advantage and influence over former Soviet Republics. Finally, they understand that Afghan Government and its forces will not be able to face the Taliban, as more than 140000 US and NATO forces plus 250000 military and police raised by them could not rein in the Taliban. On the other hand, the Taliban would not stop unless Pashtuns that make the majority of the population get their due share in ruling the country. Of course, the US will have to persuade Ashraf Ghani and his allies to change their attitude and be prepared for amendments to the Constitution.