Afghanistan: The murky road to peace

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Md. Sharif Hasan
Published : 16:57, Jan 26, 2019 | Updated : 17:22, Feb 06, 2019

Md. Sharif HasanThe United States is eager to end its nearly 18-year involvement in the war in Afghanistan, which has killed tens of thousands of civilians, soldiers and Taliban fighters. But Taliban leaders are refusing to sit at the same table with the Afghan government. US Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad on Jan 19 concluded his four-day visit to Pakistan from Jan 17, 2019, to follow up on the discussions held in December, hoping government leaders there can convince the Taliban to change its mind.
In the past three months, Ambassador Khalilzad has been active in this post. He has made a palpable difference in the discourse in Afghanistan and particularly amongst the Taliban. Those Taliban who for years simply were not prepared to mention ideas such as peace, ceasefire, settlement have been forced to talk about them. So, that much has already been achieved.
It would be fit to recall here that during the last 3 years, the Taliban has expressed its intent to be part of the negotiation process, mainly because of the stalemate that the conflict has reached, regardless of the situation in the battlefield. We know that the Taliban have been losing many of their infantry on the battlefield including the mid-level Commanders. Afghan forces have been defending their positions. Since 2014 the number of international troops has gone down in Afghanistan from 130,000 to nearly 13,000. Even then, the Taliban have not been able to achieve its major goals, such as taking over some of the provincial centres.
They did take a couple of provinces and central cities but could not maintain their hold on those and in many other places despite fighting hard. Added to their battlefield losses there has been significant pressure from the countries that have been supporting them covertly. They are faced with a situation where they have to really consider the peaceful settlement through political dialogue.
This time it is possible to think of a settlement because the Taliban are interested in a peace deal. As we all know they have suffered enormous casualties. There’s always been a lobby within the Taliban which has looked towards finding a settlement with the government and the Americans.
Analysts in this context have noted that the problem for the Taliban has been their rigidity to keep two items on their agenda. And, they will not accept anything less than that before they talk seriously to the Afghan government. The first is – a commitment by the Americans to withdraw all their forces from Afghanistan within a certain time-frame. And, the second is their release of Taliban prisoners, held by the Americans or by Kabul.
Afghan men stand in front of a collapsed building of a military base after a car bomb attack in Maidan Wardak, Afghanistan, January 21, 2019.  REUTERSA change in sight
Some other observers have pointed out that the reason why the Taliban have woken up is that they knew they couldn't rule Afghanistan as they did in the early 90s. They need foreign aid, friendly neighbours and a helping hand. The very big card the Americans can play is that aid to Afghanistan will continue if the Taliban are willing to be involved with the Afghan government and seek a compromise. The other thing is that the Taliban are deeply aware of the isolation they faced in the 90s. They were forced to accept Osama Bin Laden as one of their financiers because they had no money, no aid and were dependent on drugs and aid from foreign terrorist groups.
Putting Pakistan into the matrix
So, as far as Pakistan is concerned, many of the Taliban leaders are living there. A few Commanders or Leaders are in Iran. There’s considerable leverage that Pakistan has. Much of the Taliban logistics and manpower is based in Pakistan and goes through Pakistan into Afghanistan. And, exactly at what time and under what conditions will it use that leverage forcefully not just to introduce Khalil card to peripheral Taliban leaders but to its hardcore leadership -- the Quetta Shura as it’s called -- that is the key to the talks coming up.
So, Ambassador Khalilzad’s main aim is to meet the leadership of the Taliban and get the Pakistanis to bring them to the negotiations. So far, the kind of people he’s meeting has mostly been from the political office of the Taliban in Doha in recent times.
An easy way out?
Lastly, it’s very difficult for anybody to predict really what the future US approach will be. The US establishment, the Pentagon who’ve been managing the war they have been asking for more time and the President has not taken any firm decision. There’s a strong lobby in the US saying that some kind of commitment must be given to Afghanistan, to avoid the collapse of the current system in Afghanistan.
Most of the fighting on the ground is actually being done by Afghan security forces since 2014. However, it is also a joint effort because of the aerial support that the US provides. The financing for the war is coming from the US; they’re paying the bills.
There’s some critical uncertainty about how long the US will be staying engaged because people are asking what we’re getting for this?
First, it is up to the US to find a settlement with the Taliban working alongside the Afghan government. The second is -- to make it clear to the Taliban that they don’t have an option fighting on a protracted war.
Then, Taliban may come round to accept that they have up to negotiate with the fellow Afghans. But, if the US runs out of patience before Afghans get to that point? Then, without external assistance Afghan regime will not survive. There’s still a lot of uncertainty ahead for Afghanistan.
Md. Sharif Hasan teaches International Relations at the University of Rajshahi.

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