Dr Huma Baqai

PAKISTAN, China and the American military commanders, time and again, have insisted that Afghan war could only end in a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and not through force. More recently, the Taliban also said that the US must recognize that the Afghan conflict cannot be solved militarily. President Obama, in 2008 viewed by many as the Peace President and the recipient of the Noble Peace Prize, failed to make any headway in peace negotiations. The 2010 surge saw US adding 33,000 troops to the 68,000 in Afghanistan and put maximum military pressure on the Taliban to counter the deadly attacks against American and NATO forces. In comparison Trump in 2017, once again opting for the military option, increased US military presence in Afghanistan to 15000 troops from 11000 at the urging of the Pentagon officials who argued that the boost will push the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.

2015 was categorized as the bloodiest year of Afghanistan since US invasion in 2001. According to the United Nations, 11,002 civilians were killed or injured. 2016 was not any better. 2017, the number of civilian deaths in the Afghan war again reached a record high, continuing an almost unbroken trend of nearly a decade of rising casualties. Kabul’s bloody entry into 2018 was a sad reminder of the fact that the Afghan conflict’s unsustainable cost of civilian deaths has to be addressed and the failure of the military option is way too glaring to ignore. The Taliban appear to be fighting their way to the negotiating table while the Afghan government has no overarching strategy for waging war or making peace. The continued presence of foreign forces may be weakening the Afghan government’s ability to make decisions as it relies heavily on the strategizing of its foreign backers, wrote Hashmat Moslih, a political commentator on Afghanistan in 2015.

2018, President Ghani calls for an intra-Afghan peace dialogue with the Taliban. He calls upon them to come together and safeguard Afghanistan. He is not only ready to talk to the Taliban to save his country but offers to recognize Taliban as a legitimate political group. President Ghani has also proposed a ceasefire and release of prisoners. The offer for dialogue also comes without any pre-conditions. It includes facilitation for Taliban to open office in Kabul and a commitment to work towards easing sanctions against Taliban leaders. Ghani went as far as saying that the Taliban demands for reviewing the Constitution could also be entertained as a part of the Kabul peace process. However, women’s rights would be protected. Moreover, an open offer to former fighters to reintegrate into the society through employment and settlement.

All of the above are a first, these offers could not have come without consensus building both within the Afghan government and its foreign backers. Haroon Chakansuri, the presidential spokesman said, the proposed peace plan was prepared after months of consultation and inputs from all segments across the Afghan society and has the support of all. The change of tone is loud and clear. A more overarching comprehensive offer of negotiations, where major Taliban concerns are addressed, has never been made before. Rehabilitation, legitimacy and constitutional review are on the table with no pre-conditions for talks. Ghani categorically said that Afghan government would not “pre-judge” any group seeking peace. The terms of the offer resemble those of a deal, President Ghani struck two years ago with the insurgent group led by Gulbadin Hikmat Yar, whose forces were accused of causing thousands of civilian deaths during the 1990s, but have now joined the government. “It’s a very constructive offer with a lot of concessions for the Taliban, but we don’t know if they will accept the overture”, said Haroun Mir, an independent political analyst in Kabul. The Taliban response to the peace offer is cold, response statement said that the main reason that the Afghan war continues is the presence of foreign invading forces and peace talks would be meaningless until those forces exit from Afghanistan.

However, the Taliban are willing to talk to the United States through the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan office in Qatar. This initiative had not taken off and the office was shut down by the US because the Taliban Qatar office behaved as an alternative government and not as a movement. Today, when the Taliban say that they want to talk to the US, the question is, “in what capacity?” Do they see themselves as an alternative government or a movement? Do they want recognition or do they want peace? The United States predictably urged Taliban to speak with the Afghan government first, if they want to hold peace talks with Washington.

Ghani’s adversaries judge him as weak and desperate, unable to fulfil his end of agreements. Ata Muhammad Noor, the strong man governor of a Northern state, for more than two months has defied Ghani’s orders to leave office. Although Ghani maintains that, “A peace agreement will be a victory for all its parties and a defeat for none.” United Nations and twenty-two other countries, including the US, support the peace initiative. The skepticism on all sides is way too high and for good reason. The list of missed opportunities for peace in Afghanistan is long and painful. The peace talk initiatives of the past are littered with deadlocks, leaks and assassinations. It’s time a way forward is found. Battle fatigue has turned into battle exhaustion. Let’s hope something good comes out of the initiative despite all drawbacks and weaknesses.

— The writer is Associate Professor, Dept of Social Sciences & Liberal Arts at IBA Karachi.

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