Back to Afghan peace talks?

Published October 16, 2019
The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THEY had come close to a deal last month but a tweet from US President Donald Trump abruptly halted the process. A reported meeting between the Afghan Taliban leadership and the chief US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad in Islamabad earlier this month has, however, raised hopes of the resumption of peace talks. Both sides appeared willing to pick up where they left off.

Yet it will not be easy to remove the stumbling blocks on the way to reviving the stalled process. President Trump’s tweet calling off the talks was not just on a whim; it reflected the strong reservation of his administration against the content of the proposed agreement that was seen as more favourable to the Taliban.

On again, off again: Erratic history of talks with the Taliban

A major objection was that there was no assurance from the Taliban to adhere to a permanent ceasefire. Then there was also no firm commitment from the insurgents to open direct talks with the Kabul government. So any resumption of negotiations is predicated on the Taliban’s softening their position on those two issues.

Meanwhile, some other recent developments in Afghanistan may also cast a shadow over any move to renew the peace process. There has been a marked escalation in violence in Afghanistan over a number of weeks following the breakdown of talks. With no cessation in the Taliban offensive, there has been an escalation in air strikes by American forces, which has increased civilian casualties.

Although the result of the presidential election in Afghanistan is still awaited, it is not likely to produce political stability in the country. The threat of violence had led to a very low turnout of voters. The two main candidates — Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah — have both claimed victory.

Pakistan should avoid giving the impression that it can deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Whatever the result, it is likely to be controversial and may intensify political polarisation in the country, making the prospect of a political solution to the Afghan crisis more complex. Both the presidential candidates are sceptical of the US directly talking to the Taliban. Unsurprisingly, they have welcomed the breakdown of the US-Taliban negotiations. Irrespective of whoever is elected, there is not going to be any change in the stance that the Taliban should directly talk to the Kabul government. And there is no indication that the insurgents will talk to the Kabul administration before any deal is reached with the US.

Undoubtedly, the recent Islamabad meeting between the Taliban delegation and Pakistani officials was highly significant. It was the first high-profile interaction between them to put the Doha process back on track. Pakistani officials have reportedly exhorted the insurgents to agree to a ceasefire.

But there seems to be no indication of the Taliban changing their stance. Some observers believe that given that they have the upper hand on the battlefield, there is no incentive for the Taliban to accept a ceasefire without a deal in place. That makes the resumption of the peace process more difficult.

The presence in Islamabad of Khalilzad during the Taliban visit was no coincidence. Prime Minister Imran Khan had assured American officials during his meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session that he would help the resumption of the Afghan peace process.

That may also be the reason for the US administration to not object to Pakistan’s giving state protocol to the insurgent group. The strong reaction from President Ashraf Ghani to the Taliban visit was, however, predictable. The reception given to the insurgent group raised many eyebrows.

Even the agenda at the Foreign Office meeting in Islamabad reinforced the impression that the Taliban were being treated as a de facto government. The Americans didn’t seem to have any problem with that. It marked a complete turnaround from Washington’s past policy of threatening Pakistan over its links with the Taliban. Despite its abrupt action, the Trump administration still seems keen to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan.

Although there has not been any official acknowledgement of the meeting between the US envoy and Mullah Baradar, the head of the Taliban delegation, the resumption of contacts between the two sides has helped break the ice. But there is still no word on the recommencement of peace talks. Surely Islamabad still exercises influence over the Taliban leadership, many of whose members have their families living in Pakistan. But it is questionable whether it can get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire and talk to Kabul.

Nevertheless, the Islamabad meeting has produced some positive results. While improving the possibility of the resumption of peace talks, it has forced the US and the Taliban to consider significant confidence-building measures including a reduction in violence and the exchange of prisoners.

The US has already released 11 Taliban detainees from Bagram prison in exchange for three Indian engineers. According to some reports, negotiations are also being held to secure the release of two American and Australian nationals in exchange for some other Taliban prisoners including a brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani who is in a prison death cell in Kabul. The Afghan government, however, is reluctant to release the Taliban prisoners.

Notwithstanding some positive signals, there are still some roadblocks to navigate before any substantive talks between the US and the Taliban can resume. The reduction in violence and the exchange of prisoners can help build confidence and pave the way for moving forward. The most important thing is to include the Kabul government in any future talks. The onus is on the Taliban.

Pakistan has played a constructive role in facilitating meetings between the US and the Taliban. But it should not try to encourage the impression that it can deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table. It must keep its role limited to being a facilitator and not a deal-maker. For Afghan peace, it is important for other regional and surrounding countries to play their role too. The Trump administration too must show more seriousness in talking peace. Calling off a process via a tweet is not what is expected from a responsible country.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2019



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