THE Biden administration has now given a more definite timeline where the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is concerned. While the US president had said that it would be “tough” to meet the May 1 deadline agreed upon between the previous US administration and the Afghan Taliban, American officials now say that the withdrawal will be completed by Sept 11. While some may see this as shifting the goalposts, it can also be viewed as a more realistic, achievable date.

Moreover, it is significant that the announcement has come ahead of Afghan peace talks scheduled to be held in Istanbul from April 24. However, the Afghan Taliban have said they will not participate in the event in Turkey “until all foreign forces withdraw from our homeland”. But it is also true that much can change between now and April 24 and we can expect hectic diplomatic activity to make the Istanbul event a success, and bring the Taliban round to accepting the new date.

As has been stressed before in these columns, foreign involvement in Afghanistan has been a major source of that country’s instability, though the Afghan political class and warlords have also played a significant role in the destruction of their homeland. However, the ‘forever war’ cannot continue, and the sooner foreign forces leave Afghanistan and Afghans themselves take responsibility for their country, the better. Washington must stick to the new date and ensure the process is not delayed further. And while the Taliban are talking tough about the latest development, they must show flexibility and continue to negotiate with the government in Kabul.

The fact is that the Istanbul meeting presents a good opportunity for all Afghan factions — the Western-backed government, the Taliban, other political and tribal stakeholders — to try and push the peace process forward and set some doable goals. And it would be a good idea for all factions, particularly the Taliban, to desist from all acts of violence as a major confidence-building measure to show that they come to the Turkish city in good faith. If the Taliban continue to display a rigid stance and decide to boycott the meeting, it may affect the withdrawal of foreign forces, and plunge Afghanistan into more uncertainty.

The fact is that Afghanistan has suffered for decades as powerful local players have refused to compromise and have insisted on hogging power. That has resulted in relentless misery for the people of that country. The US and its Western allies appear to have had enough of the Afghan war — though some Republican figures seem to want the US mission to continue indefinitely — and the onus is now on the Afghans to take control of their destiny and rebuild their country. The weeks ahead will show whether or not the principal Afghan players are willing to take up the gauntlet.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2021

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