Although the process of peace in Afghanistan has moved somewhat forward with President Ashraf Ghani indicating that much-awaited dialogue with the Taliban would commence soon, yet two developments have made the future of peace in Afghanistan quite questionable.
The developments include statements from US officials that the Afghan militants still maintain ties with global terror outfit Al Qaeda. Secondly, the appointment of former Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum as “martial” of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which has jeopardised the peace process.
According to the United States military, the Pentagon, the Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate in Afghanistan maintains close ties to the Taliban and has an “enduring interest” in attacking US and foreign troops. Here, it is important to note that under the peace deal with the US in February last, the Taliban had agreed to stop Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a safe haven to plot attacks. Since then, the Taliban have continued to work with Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the regional face of the militant organisation, according to the US Defence Department. However, the report by the US Department of Defense said,“AQIS routinely supports and works with low-level Taliban members in its efforts to undermine the Afghan government and maintain an enduring interest in attacking US forces and Western targets in the region.”
The Pentagon report revealed that “despite recent progress in the peace process, AQIS maintains close ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan, likely for protection and training.” Importantly, the Pentagon report coincides with the United Nations analysis stating that Al Qaeda and the Taliban “remain close” and were in regular consultations over negotiations with America. The Taliban deny having any workable relations with Al Qaeda while not totally ruling out having ideological ties with it. Nevertheless, the Afghan Taliban have always unequivocally claimed that they do not aim targets beyond the boundaries of their motherland, Afghanistan. History of events testifies the claim of the Taliban as they hardly ever have been found involved in terrorist or militant attacks outside Afghanistan. Yes, there has always been a possibility that after the near mopping up of the Al Qaeda leadership by the US forces, the residual members have been in search of survival and they may have been trying to maintain links with the Taliban. However, the Pentagon and UN reports do not mention Al Qaeda and the Taliban keeping operational links with each other. This is not possible as Al Qaeda has become quite weak over the last several years and it has not been in a position to help the Taliban.
However, the reports and assessments, particularly by the US and the Pentagon, cast long shadows on the future of peace in Afghanistan. It is important to mention that the US forces had occupied Afghanistan in late 2001 by dislodging the Taliban regime in the aftermath of terrorist attacks on the US mainland, claimed by Al Qaeda, then under the protection and patronage of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since then, the US forces’ presence in Afghanistan has been aimed at cutting links between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, so that the latter, always cherishing a global terrorist agenda, may not become a threat to the US and its allies’ security and interests.
The other development, which has dealt a blow to peace efforts in Afghanistan, is the appointment of former ruthless warlord, Rashid Dostum, who also remained a ceremonial vice president of Afghanistan in the last tenure of President Ghani (2014-18), as “martial” of the Afghan forces. Dostum has been accused of many atrocities against his rivals, including killing thousands of the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s and after the ouster of the Taliban regime in his stronghold northern Afghanistan. The appointment of a person, who remained a vice president and has a political party, as a “martial” of the Afghan forces is against the spirit of the peace process. Such things can only happen in Afghanistan. In fact, the appointment of Dostum as “martial” aims to send a strong message to the Taliban. However, while on his peak and despite being vice president, Dostum could not effectively lead the Afghan state to defeat the Taliban, so what difference now he could make to trounce them? The intention of the Afghan government seems not to intimidate the Taliban but to annoy the militia leadership. Now the Taliban leadership, particularly the low-level foot soldiers, would ask its leaders not to hold intra-Afghan peace talks and they have solid reasons for the demand. Torpedoing the peace process with the Taliban is very much in the interest of the ruling Afghan politicians, including President Ghani, chief of the Afghan High Peace Council, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, and the newly appointed “martial” Dostum. Because once the Afghan Taliban return to power, they would lose much of their power and status, which is not at all in their favour. Therefore, they have been trying to sabotage every effort for peace with the Taliban for long, which has inflicted irreparable damage on Afghanistan and the Afghan nation. Noticeably, Abdullah remained the Chief Executive of Afghanistan (a virtual but powerless prime minister) in the previous tenure of President Ghani, this time he has chosen the slot of chief negotiator in the intra-Afghan peace process. It certainly means that Abdullah, belonging to the Tajik minority of Afghanistan and Rashid Dostum, from the minuscule minority Uzbek ethnic group of Afghanistan, by blackmailing President Ghani, a Pashtun, the majority ethnic group of Afghanistan, want to take hold of the peace process. Now they would first try to sabotage the peace process in Afghanistan. Secondly, if the peace process starts and results in a deal after an intra-Afghan dialogue, Abdullah and Dostum would like to get the lion’s share of the spoils.
Already, the ostensibly historic deal between the US and the Afghan Taliban reached for restoring peace to Afghanistan has became quite questionable as President Ashraf Ghani first refused to respect the terms of the agreement. The agreement between Washington and the Afghan Taliban inter alia included the withdrawal of all the remaining around 8,000 US personnel from Afghanistan in 13 months and the setting free of more than 5,000 Taliban inmates from Afghan jails. The deal also envisaged an intra-Afghan dialogue soon.
However, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, without realizing the importance of the agreement between Washington and the Taliban, refused to accept the agreement. The problem of President Ghani is that his nominees or any Afghan official was not part of the deal between the US and the Taliban whereas he claimed to be an important stakeholder in any negotiations. However, the Taliban have been consistently pleading that they would not engage in negotiations with the Afghan government unless there is an agreement with the US which is only possible once the latter gives a timeframe for withdrawal of all its forces from Afghan soil. According to the Taliban, the Afghan government has been nothing but a puppet of Washington. While one cannot call the Afghan government a “puppet” because many Afghans voted for Ashraf Ghani and before him, Hamid Karzai, but it is also very much true that without the support of Washington both could not even rule for a single day.
Moreover, the Taliban have been a very important reality of contemporary Afghanistan, notwithstanding the claims of Afghan authorities. The Afghan authorities’ non-recognition of the Taliban or an attempt to label them as Pakistan’s stooges, and not a genuine political entity, has been the main cause of the apparently unending conflict in Afghanistan. Unless this mindset changes, there could be no peace in Afghanistan.