Jumpstarting the Afghan peace process | By Dr Huma Baqai


March 16, 2021

JUMPSTARTING THE AFGHAN PEACE PROCESS

AFGHANISTAN is under a spell of unabated violence, all sides are in conversations yet once again to jumpstart the stalled peace process. Talks, shuttle and backdoor diplomacy is in full swing.

The issues ahead for the Taliban and Afghan government are not easily resolvable and no country has sufficient influence with the other side to force a sustainable peace.

A deal that was struck with the Taliban during the Trump Administration in February 2020, which committed the US to withdraw by 01 May 2021, is hanging in balance.

With 1st May, only days away now, all the stakeholders are getting cold feet.

The rising levels of violence on the ground in Afghanistan during recent months has all worried about the enormous security challenges, that the withdrawal would create. The US has made a proposal which is drawing mixed reactions.

An apparent draft of a new peace agreement from the office of the US peace envoy in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been leaked after doing the rounds in Kabul.

The eight tightly typed pages, which were obtained by the BBC along with a leaked three-page letter from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have kicked up a political storm.

Mr Blinken in his letter to the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, warned that the Taliban could make “rapid territorial gain” across the country in a spring offensive.

He also proposed a “transitional peace government” to usher the country through the precarious period and called for a 90-day reduction in violence with a transitional government having representatives from both sides.

He further added that no decision had been made about the planned US troop withdrawal on 01 May 2021.

The BBC’s Chief International Correspondent, Lyse Doucet, describes the letter to President Ghani as “blunt” and as an effort to “step up the pressure” on the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The plain-speaking Afghan Vice-President, Amrullah Saleh, fired straight back, saying Afghanistan would “never accept a bossy and imposed peace. They can make decisions on their troops, not the people of Afghanistan.”

President Ghani in a speech to the law makers to open the third term of the legislative National Assembly in Kabul, said, “I advise those who go to ‘this or that,’ political power in Afghanistan has a gate, and the key is the vote of the Afghan people” without referring to the proposed international conference by the US.

With peace negotiations in Doha stalled and violence in Afghanistan escalating, the Biden Administration is trying to build a consensus around alternative options with-all Afghan sides and key regional players, attempting to create balance, but also desperate to exit.

Taliban are unlikely to agree to an extension in the foreign troops drawdown, unless they get something in return, which could include a demand for releasing 7,500 prisoners and the delisting of their leaders from the UN sanctions list; both are very tall orders.

Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American Professor of International Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is of the opinion that if the US unilaterally extends the deadline, then it is in a sort of unknown domain because Taliban’s view is that it is the US that wants the war to end, not them. The Taliban are willing to fight for another 20 years.

Through an “open letter,” the Taliban also urged the Biden Administration to stick to the troop withdrawal agreement, describing it “the most effective way of ending” the Afghan war in Afghanistan.

He explained it further by saying that the way the Doha process was created, it was essentially a military disengagement deal between the two fighting forces on the ground and nothing more.

Bring in Russia to the complicated security matrix, Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Afghanistan, is on record saying that the Taliban insurgency is “flawlessly” adhering to the terms of 2020 peace deal with the US to help end the war in Afghanistan and has urged Washington not to renege on its commitments.

Not a single American soldier has died since the agreement was signed, which cannot be said about the Americans who have continued to attack Taliban, he emphasized.

Interestingly, both Russia and the US are calling for consultation and conferences to give the requisite push to the Afghan peace process. Here comes in the Indian factor.

The Biden Administration wants a broader regional consensus and is looking at giving place to India and Iran on the table.

The Russians are calling it a ‘consultation of the expanded Trio,’ which has Russia, US, China and Pakistan, with the invites also going to Afghan statesman and the Taliban delegation.

However, Russia was quick to reject media reports that claimed that it has kept India out of the international efforts for the Afghan peace process, saying it seems to be based on ill-informed sources.

Most still consider Pakistan having a pivotal position in taking the peace process forward with a 2,560 km porous border with Afghanistan and having some influence with the Taliban.

However, it would be a folly to believe that the Taliban can be convinced by Pakistan for a long-term ceasefire or an extension to the May deadline.

The onus for success of the process rests on Afghan stakeholders to mutually navigate the minefield of political disagreements.

The best way to salvage the Doha deal lies in an inclusive consultative process embraced both by national stakeholders and external players.

Any decision excluding the Taliban, Kabul or regional actors is likely to spell greater trouble for Afghanistan.

Both American and Russian initiatives, as long as they work with the ground realities of Afghanistan in mind, without a desire to overtake the process, are welcome.

As for Pakistan, it is fully committed to an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process, and facilitating it to the best of its capacity.

However, it should not be held responsible now or later for the failure of the Afghan government or the blundering of US policy makers.

—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi.