After several false starts, the Afghan peace process has at last got under way. Recently, the US and Afghan Taliban concluded peace talks in UAE following Pakistan’s successful efforts to persuade the insurgents to come to the negotiating table.
In a statement, the Foreign Office said that Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table with the United States is part of its “shared responsibility” for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. In line with Pakistan’s commitment to durable peace in Afghanistan, a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was present during the US-Taliban talks.
It may be recalled here that the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, recently visited the region to speed up the peace efforts in Afghanistan. He has been deputed by the US government to navigate for a peace agreement with the Afghan Taliban by exploring diplomatic and political avenues before the upcoming Afghan presidential elections in April 2019.
Pakistan has always supported dialogue as the only option for a successful peace process in Afghanistan. Pakistan is a firm supporter of peace in Afghanistan, as peace in Afghanistan would mean peace in Pakistan. No other country in the world has sacrificed as much in this war as Pakistan. The Global Terrorism Index, which publishes data on terrorism from across the world, ranks Pakistan as the second most terrorism-affected country in the world. But with grit and determination, Pakistan has been able to eliminate the menace of terrorism from its soil. After establishing peace within, Pakistan now wants peace in the region, especially Afghanistan which has been in the throes of a civil war for the last two decades.
In recent months, the Afghan Taliban have achieved unprecedented successes on the battlefield as well as in diplomatic parleys in Russia and Central Asia. For peace in the region, serious and sincere efforts are needed by all stakeholders. The Afghan Taliban as well as Pakistan are for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan through dialogue. But the United States keeps shifting its position, seriously damaging the prospects for any meaningful negotiations. Abrupt U-turns on the part of the US administration and lack of a clear decision on troop withdrawal have been the main hurdles to peace in Afghanistan.
Analysts point out that whenever the US government announces its intention to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban scale down their offensive to catalyze the peace process. On the other hand, increased US military activities draw an equally aggressive response from the Taliban. Also, whenever a peace initiative is under way, the US government targets some high profile Taliban leadership, scuttling the whole process. This leads to the conclusion that the US is not really interested in peace in Afghanistan and somehow wants to prolong its stay there for as long as possible.
With the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorating fast, time is on the side of the Taliban. While the US dithers, the Afghan regime is getting weaker by the day. On the other hand, the country’s mainstream political parties have established independent peace negotiating teams to talk to the Taliban. Jamiat-e-Islami, led by Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar-led Hizb-e-Islami have created their own separate teams to negotiate with the Taliban.
President Trump’s decision some time back to pursue the Afghan policy with increased ferocity backfired as evidenced by enhanced terrorist attacks on government installations and US troops. Subsequent events proved that Pakistan’s leadership – both civilian and military – was right to reject the new US policy, reiterating the need for a negotiated settlement as well as reaffirming its commitment to facilitate the process of reconciliation in Afghanistan. Better late than never, the Trump administration finally realised the folly of pursuing a military solution to the Afghan conflict and asked Pakistan to help bring the Taliban to the negotiating table to find a way to end the Afghan war.
Reports from the UAE after the initial round of talks say that the US wants the Taliban to announce a six-month-long ceasefire, join the national unity government that is to be installed in Afghanistan in the future and become part of the Afghan political system. On their part, the Taliban want the US to release all their prisoners, lift the ban on the movement of their leaders, remove their names from the blacklist and announce a deadline for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Taliban are reported to have shown their willingness to agree on the proposed ceasefire, provided Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE become guarantors and the future Afghan government is given to someone acceptable to all stakeholders.
The sticking point remains the time-schedule for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghan soil, which all along has been the demand of the Taliban. The Afghan Taliban’s willingness to accept the proposed ceasefire for six months is a sign of flexibility on their part. It is now for the US to respond in the same spirit to pave the way for a peaceful settlement of the long festering war.
[As this article goes to press, US President Trump has announced a fifty per cent cut in 14,000 US forces in Afghanistan. How this impacts the US-Taliban negotiations has yet to be seen. Ed]