The year 2019 is the most promising in terms of the possibility of making Afghanistan peaceful 17 years after the United States of America decided to invade the country with the aim of destroying al-Qaeda and toppling the Taliban regime.
If 2018 saw a record number of casualties, the year also raised hopes like never before that a negotiated settlement of the long drawn out conflict could be attempted through direct talks first between the Afghan Taliban and the US and subsequently the Taliban and the Afghan government.
A near consensus has almost emerged among all the stakeholders that the Afghan conflict won’t end through military means. Instead, for the first time more emphasis was placed on finding a political solution. One could only wish that this realisation had dawned some years ago and not so late as the longest American war in history has killed nearly 140,000 people, including security personnel, civilians and militants, and cost the US almost a trillion dollars.
Despite being a superpower, the US has finally conceded it cannot defeat the Taliban. Top US military officers were initially boasting about defeating the Taliban before admitting there was a stalemate on the battlefield. All 17 US and Nato military commanders who have served in Afghanistan since 2001 not only sought more troops, but also gave glad tidings to the American people about turning the corner.
Taliban have yet to publicly admit that they too cannot force a decisive military victory and some of their leaders continue to believe that they are poised to win this war. However, US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad after several rounds of talks with Taliban recently claimed that they too privately concede that a military victory for them isn’t in sight. In such a scenario, talks are the most logical way to bring the Afghan conflict to an end.
Indeed talks are finally taking place and despite obvious disagreements the Taliban and the US have agreed to continue talking. For the first time since 2001 when the Taliban regime was removed as a result of the post-9/11 US-led military intervention, the two sides have engaged since July 2018 in the most sustained peace dialogue to date in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The next round of talks is expected to be held in Saudi Arabia in January. The process that started in mid-2018 would thus continue in 2019. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that the talks have generated hope that something positive can happen if the peace dialogue doesn’t collapse.
The stakeholders are keeping their fingers crossed. Nobody is bidding that success of the peace talks is now round the corner. The recent statement by General Scott Miller, the US and Nato military commander in Afghanistan was meaningful and apparently reflected the view in the Pentagon. He told his troops in Kabul to prepare to deal with “positive processes or negative consequences” as the peace talks with Taliban go ahead. The success of the talks would be a welcome development for the US as this could facilitate an early pullout of American troops from Afghanistan in view of the publicly stated wishes of President Donald Trump. The failure of the talks would complicate the situation as the high levels of violence taking place nowadays could increase and further engulf the neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan.
Though the talks that have taken place until now in Qatar and the UAE were secret, it is common knowledge that there has been no breakthrough yet. Taliban refused to accept the US proposals for a ceasefire and for holding direct talks with the Afghan government to make the process truly Afghan-led and owned. There have been reports that the US would want to keep a few of its military bases in Afghanistan to be able to ensure implementation of a peace agreement with the Taliban. The Taliban are unlikely to accept such a demand. The US may also want Taliban to abide by Afghanistan’s Constitution and dissociate from al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist organisation.
The Taliban’s foremost demand was and continues to be the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. The only flexibility shown by Taliban is to agree to a timetable of pullout of US-led foreign forces instead of seeking immediate withdrawal. Taliban certainly want release of all their prisoners held by the US at the Guantanamo Bay and in Bagram in Afghanistan and those under custody of the Afghan government. Another old Taliban demand is removal of names of their leaders from the US Security Council’s ‘black list’ so that the sanctions against them are lifted. They have also been demanding opening of a formal Taliban office in Doha, Qatar. This demand was accepted several years ago, but the then Afghan President Hamid Karzai put his foot down and got it reversed when he objected to the use of the name ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ for the Taliban office he felt it meant a parallel Afghan government.
At this stage it appears unlikely that Taliban would agree to hold talks with the Afghan government until the US commits to giving a timetable of withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan. The US won’t do this without taking the Afghan government on board. On its part, the national unity government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah is angry that it isn’t part of the US-Taliban talks. It was hoping that the US and Pakistan would be able to persuade the Taliban to agree to talk to Kabul. The Afghan government even sent a high-level delegation, which included its top spymaster Masoom Stanekzai and its 12-member negotiating team led by Abdul Salam Raheemi, to Abu Dhabi to meet the Taliban.
The Taliban refusal caused embarrassment to Kabul, more so in view of the expansion of the format of the US-Taliban meetings to include officials from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Regional rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its ally, UAE, could also cause complications as they vie for hosting the peace talks and playing the role of peacemakers.
There has also been a hardening of the Afghan government’s position in reaction to the inflexibility being shown by Taliban. President Ghani on December 23 appointed two hardline, former Afghan spy chiefs, Amrullah Saleh and Asadullah Khalid, as interior minister and defence minister, respectively. Their strong anti-Taliban and anti-Pakistan views are no secret. The move to give them key security positions could be designed to send a strong message of defiance to Taliban and also to Pakistan. This could complicate US efforts for peace.
Though the postponement of the Afghan presidential election for three months from April 20 to July 20 could give the 67-year old Khalilzad more time to try and conclude a peace agreement with Taliban, the challenge is formidable as the many stakeholders have different objectives and there are some spoilers too waiting to sabotage the effort.