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Afghan dynamics and déjà vu

February 04, 2019

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The writer is a former foreign secretary and an author.
The writer is a former foreign secretary and an author.

THE decision by the US to engage in direct dialogue with the Afghan Taliban and its willingness to pull out of Afghanistan has set off a new dynamic that has both promise and a déjà vu quality. The Soviet commitment to withdrawal was unequivocal; the American indications are reversible. Then the issue was a broad-based government, now it is a sustainable political settlement. The Soviet withdrawal did not prevent continuation of the conflict; the same is feared if the Americans were to leave precipitously. There are many imponderables and internal and external factors that can derail peace efforts. So what is it that is critical for progress?

The US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has spoken of forward movement on a two-point framework namely the issue of withdrawal and the Taliban commitment not to allow extremists to find safe haven in territory under their control.

There are other signs of hope. A Taliban spokesman in Qatar averred that the Taliban are not seeking a “monopoly” of power and have a vision of an “inclusive Afghan world”, something quite new in Taliban parlance. On the other hand, well-respected voices in the United States have dismissed any framework that excludes ceasefire and direct dialogue between the Taliban and the Kabul government as akin to “surrender”. And, that any hasty withdrawal risks escalation of the civil war.

Meanwhile, the Taliban reject negotiations with the Kabul government. Kabul is fuming over its exclusion from the Qatar dialogue. Khalilzad has conceded that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, and chided critics for having “rushed to judgement”. At best, the existing stalemate has given way to a situation in flux, with hopeful signs.

Pakistan has an indispensable role but it must be played with circumspection.

The Afghan conflict is complex and Afghanistan is riven with deep schisms of a political, ethnic, sectarian and ideological character. Afghanistan is more than the Taliban or the Pakhtuns. To expect that peace is simply contingent on US withdrawal is to deny the Afghan history of conflict following the Soviet withdrawal three decades ago. Thanks to post-9/11 opportunities, the non-Pakhtun population is stronger than ever before. Similarly, there has been socioeconomic advancement for the educated class and women who had all been marginalised under Taliban rule. They will resist its return.

Regionally, regardless of their reported support, Russia, China and Iran will be uneasy with Taliban control in Kabul. Today, the world, including erstwhile adversaries, has grudgingly recognised the Taliban as a powerful political entity. However, few accept the Taliban position that they are the legitimate government dislodged by foreign intervention which must first be removed for peace to return to Afghanistan.

The US-Taliban dialogue is taking place when Afghan political factions are bracing themselves for the forthcoming presidential elections. Con­comitantly, there is talk of an interim government to accommodate the Taliban and to push forward the peace process. The latter option is contingent on several factors; a ceasefire, a timeline for withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue and agreement on the composition of an interim arrangement. All these will require many leopards to change their spots.

For starters, President Ashraf Ghani will have to concede political exit and non-Pakhtun factions will have to accept a dilution of their influence in Kabul. Under the circumstances, an agreed interim arrangement appears improbable unless a new powerful alignment, which includes credible non-Pakhtun leaders, emerges to endorse it.

What can propel the nascent peace process initiated by the Qatar dialogue is that the status quo is becoming increasingly untenable and that war fatigue has set in, at least among the Americans. All this may turn out to be a false dawn. The hope that this 40-year-old conflict has run its course depends on two trajectories: reduction in violence and some form of intra-Afghan dialogue for a political settlement. Reduction of violence will depend on a formal or informal ceasefire which is inextricably linked to the question of a timeline for withdrawal and a de facto acceptance of Taliban control over territories under their influence.

If the Taliban reject talks with Kabul, they must agree to an intra-Afghan dialogue of Afghan parties that includes them and the government, for working out a political settlement or retooling the Bonn arrangement. The format can take any acceptable shape combining traditional procedures, such as the Loya Jirga.

However, for any settlement to find traction, it must emerge from the Afghans themselves. In short, the peace process now perilously rests on the patience of the Trump administration with its new approach, and possible flexibility on the part of the Afghan leaders to measure up to the responsibility that this historical juncture imposes on them.

Pakistan has an indispensable role but it must be played with circumspection. Pakistan should remain constructively engaged without appearing to be backing or taking responsibility for any Afghan party. The Qatar venue is fortuitous. A venue in Pakistan can rake up avoidable suspicion and speculation. We must look for positive results rather than kudos for helping the process. The regional actors and forums such as the Quadrilatral Contact Group, the Moscow Format or the Heart of Asia Initiative are important. They can nudge the peace process forward, but they are not the key to its success.

Subversive Indian activities and the spectre of a two-front security threat have underpinned Pakistan’s concerns about India’s role. For argument’s sake, a stable Afghanistan will diminish that possibility. Also to contain mischief, we have to work with Kabul and Washington and not the Taliban or any other Afghan group. At the same time, we cannot object to Afghanistan and India having cooperation that is not at the cost of Pakistan especially in trade and the economic arena. In fact, we should positively look at measures, such as overland transit, that could create India’s stake in Afghanistan’s stability. Perhaps, Pakistan and India can also turn a new page in their relations.

Much has been said about the enormous opportunities that a stable and peaceful Afghanistan can open for itself and for the region in areas of connectivity, communications and energy corridors, and commerce and economic cooperation. But it is pointless to count the chicks before they are hatched.

The writer is a former foreign secretary and an author.

Published in Dawn, February 4th , 2019