WHILE the postponement of the Istanbul peace talks on Afghanistan, which were scheduled to be held later this week, does come as a dampener, it does not mean that the peace process is dead. In fact, global and regional powers will now have to step up their efforts to ensure that the Afghan government and the insurgents continue the dialogue process and achieve a consensus acceptable to all in Afghanistan. At this point, the Afghan Taliban’s lack of participation in the Istanbul parleys is being cited as the major reason for the event’s postponement, while the Turkish foreign minister has said the talks had been put off till “after Ramazan”. Apparently, the Taliban are posturing as the Biden administration has pushed back the withdrawal date of foreign troops from May 1 to Sept 11; the earlier date was agreed upon by the Taliban and the Trump administration after the two signed the Doha peace agreement in 2020. The Taliban have adopted the maximalist position that they will not participate in any peace negotiations until foreign forces leave Afghanistan, though Pakistan has urged the militia to stay engaged.

At this critical juncture, the Taliban can play hardball and avoid the negotiating table, rendering years of painstaking diplomatic efforts meaningless as Afghanistan plunges back into anarchy. However, the alternative is for the armed group to keep channels open and reach a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government and other stakeholders in the country. Perhaps Pakistan and other Muslim states — the Arabs, Turkey, Iran — can ramp up diplomatic efforts to ensure that the Taliban do not walk away from the peace process. It should be clear that achieving peace will require compromises from all Afghan power players, and the ‘all or nothing’ approach will only pile more misery upon the hapless Afghan people. With a mix of carrots and sticks, there is a fair chance of convincing the Taliban. Moreover, foreign forces must also honour their commitments and withdraw as per the new deadline, while the government in Kabul must show that it is ready to defend the whole country without foreign support. The brief window of opportunity for achieving peace in Afghanistan is closing, and it is not known when — or if — the next one will open. Therefore, an increased diplomatic push by foreign powers and internal efforts by the Afghans themselves are required to grab the opportunity before it slips away yet again.

Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2021

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