For many people, the flurry of diplomatic activities in Kabul, Islamabad, Doha and Moscow offers a glimmer of hope that the US and Taliban may not be far from reaching a ceasefire agreement on ending violence in Afghanistan. The proceeding discussion is a commentary of despair and hope that Afghan peace initiative evokes. What does the US want from Taliban and vice versa?
The US wants that Afghanistan must not become a sanctuary for terrorists again. Strategic thinking in the US seems to be this: without the support of a state, global terrorist outfits — the likes of ISIS and al Qaeda — cannot execute a major act of terror in the country. The US seems to be convinced that al Qaeda and other international terrorists have been neutralised in Afghanistan to the extent that they would not be able to attack the US until these terrorists once again have the backing and full support of a state. Additionally, forced by circumstances, wastage of billions of dollars, deaths of service men and women and a hostile region, complete pullout suits the US.
On the other hand, Taliban want the complete withdrawal of US-led allied forces from Afghanistan. The militia, convinced that it cannot rule over the country until the US departs, is poised to overrun Afghanistan once complete pullout takes place. It already controls and contests no less than 60 percent territory in the country.
In the last week of January, American and Taliban officials continued to talk for six days in the Qatari capital. On January 31, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy for Afghan peace tweeted: “we made significant progress on two vital issues: counter terrorism and troop withdrawal.” He also told The New York Times that the US and Taliban had agreed in principle that the latter would not allow Afghanistan to be a “platform for international terrorist groups or individuals” and the former would withdraw troops from the country. The newspaper, on the authority of Sayed Akbar Agha — a former Taliban official and the militia close contact — also reported the above. Where does Kabul stand?
The Afghan government wants any peace efforts with regard to Afghanistan to be led by Kabul, something any sovereign government would definitely want. Background interviews with close aides of President Ashraf Ghani show that the Afghan president or his government is not taken on board while peace talks are underway. The Afghan government was not invited to the six-day Doha talks. Similarly, the government did not attend the two-day peace negotiation which was held on February 5 and 6 in Moscow where Taliban officials met with other Afghan politicians including former president Hamid Karzai. Likewise, the next round of the US-Taliban talk, scheduled for February 25, will, in all probability, exclude the Afghan government.
What do Afghans long for?
Victims of four decades of death and destruction, the Afghans want an end to violence. This is something the whole world can see. Who they want to rule is something that can only be ascertained through a free and fair election. There is no other benchmark to find out as to whom Afghans want to run their country. Except Taliban, who have seen the utility of brute force to prevail upon rivals, the rest of the three stakeholders — Afghans, the Afghan government and the US — have no issue with elections to decide the future government of Afghanistan. Taliban see no point to settle for a piece of cake in a democratic election when they can have all of it through the use of force. Without the Afghan government, there is no one who speaks for Afghanistan! What is regional input?
This time, important regional players, ranging from China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia are involved in the peace efforts between the US and Taliban. The Islamist militia has held meetings with officials from Saudi Arabia and UAE, the two countries, besides Pakistan, that had recognised the Taliban regime in Afghanistan before the US-led invasion of the country in 2001. The absence of demurral and outcry on the part of regional spoilers — Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Russia — and Taliban demonstrates their apparent contentment with the peace process. Regional states around Afghanistan share a common interest to evict American forces from Afghanistan. This is what they have been in the process of achieving so far.
What are the implications of US disengagement?
The US gradual disengagement from Afghanistan has steadily increased regional states’ interference in the country. When Washington abandons Kabul, it will be like revisiting the 1990s. The former Soviet Union, in 1989, left a fledgling communist regime under Najibullah who oversaw the country’s drift to civil war. He was forced to resign on April 16, 1992. Later, the Taliban defeated Najib’s successor President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s forces and the Afghan capital fell to militant militia on September 18, 1998.
The US might leave a fragile government in Kabul only to pave way for a civil war, which the 1990s witnessed. Similarly, the uneasy alliance, a marriage of convenience, of regional states will simply fizzle out in a similar fashion once the Soviet Union was forced out of Afghanistan in 1989. A new alignment of regional states, a reversion to post-Soviet withdrawal till the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, will emerge. An anti-Taliban coalition backed by the combined strength of Russia, Iran, Central Asian States and India will fight against the Taliban supported by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
The writing is on the wall. Either the US will have to hand in the charge of Afghanistan to the Taliban or the talks will be a fiasco. The militia, on heel of its ground victories, isn’t contented with a share of the pie; they lay claim to the whole pie! The only real victims are Afghans who have not had their slice of the peace pie ever since 1979. Without forcing Taliban to operate as a political party, peace is a pipedream.