With the beginning of the new year the Afghan peace talk is taking some unexpected summersaults after its smooth initiation by the US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in the last quarter of the last year.
Three significant developments occurred in the last two weeks: first, the Taliban refused to hold the stipulated round of talks in Saudi Arabia quoting pressure by the Kingdom’s official for talks with the Afghan government.
The second but seemingly more ominous development was the refusal by the Taliban on Friday, January 18, to hold talks with the Khalilzad-headed US delegation, that arrived a day earlier in Islamabad. The reason stated by the Taliban for not holding talks with the US delegation in Islamabad was the US demands of a two-month ceasefire and including the Afghan government in talks. However, they resumed talks with Khalilzad in Qatar on Monday, January 21. Before that, on January 17, Pakistani foreign office spoke person Dr Mohammad Faisal said categorically in a weekly media briefing that India has no role in Afghanistan.
That the Taliban refused to talk in Islamabad but resumed talks after three days in Qatar leads to many questions and engenders suspicions. Was that a tactical move on behalf of the Taliban to not have talks on the Pakistani soil or was such a scenario not suitable given Pakistan’s strategic options? How much space is the US and the Afghan government ready to give, and at what cost?
Apparently, recognising the Taliban as a stakeholder in Afghanistan is not an encouraging scenario either for the US or for the Afghan government. The Taliban have yet to recognise the US as well as the Afghan government as genuine stakeholders.
There are concerns that elements within the corridors of power in Pakistan may still be hoping to pull strings in Afghanistan post US withdrawal. Its an old dream but much water has passed under the bridge since the 1990s
So far, the impression is that the Taliban are enjoying an upper hand and are dictating terms and conditions of the peace talks only because of their advantage in the battlefield. If violence best serves the ends of Taliban and their regional patrons, they will opt to maintain that leverage through further escalation of violence at the cost of innocent Afghan blood. Particularly, if the group sees the global superpower (US) on the run, it can turn more gruesome and may once again welcome foreign terrorist groups for support in the onslaught against Kabul.
This possbility may send a wave of joy and sense of victory among regional powers, who have kept waiting for the past 17 years, without changing their policies of interference and of nurturing Jihadi infrastructure.
There are concerns that elements within the corridors of power in Pakistan may still be hoping to pull strings in Afghanistan post US withdrawal. However, its an age-old dream but much water has passed under the bridge since the1990s. Currently, Pakistan has the worst image in the eyes of the majority of Afghans, who consider Pakistan responsible for their decades-long suffering.
Among all regional states, India enjoys an immense prestige among the majority of Afghan because it has put its soft power to good use through investment in infrastructure and services that have directly benefited Afghan people. More importantly, Afghans do not link India’s aid and cooperation to designs of interference and domination.
On the other hand, Taliban’s image is that of a proxy mercenary group that is working for foreign powers to turn Afghanistan into a bunker and a launching pad for their vested interests. Therefore, they have zero prospect of capturing or acquiring power through a democratic process. Thus, violence remains their only means to capture power in Afghanistan.
However, this time it will not be easy for the Taliban to run over Kabul as they did in 1996. At that time, the Afghan state had collapsed and the national army was liquidated when the Mujahidin supported by Pakistan entered Afghanistan. Later, the various Mujahidin factions started fighting among themselves for control over maximum area and resources. At that time any warlord worth his salt could establish his own state in the area he controlled.
In the last 17 years, the Afghan state and its institutions have revived to a large extent. There’s a standing army, but more importantly these institutions enjoy the support of the Afghan majority through the elected government. There are now expanding and exuberant urban centres populated by the young educated generation adhering to the democratic and progressive ideas unlike their ancestors. The Afghan society is no longer like it was in the 1980s and 1990s suffering from extreme division between Communism or hardcore conservative Islamists. Now its an emerging moderate democratic society. So, the Taliban can hardly find anyone to welcome them in Kabul.
Moreover, the Pakistani society has also lost appetite for geo-strategic dramas. Now there is a growing realisation that Pakistan’s political and economic woes are the byproduct of the powers-that-be’s adventurist, self-destructive, and myopic policies. Apart from political and economic destabilisation, and its attendant problems, the people of Pakistan physically suffered for one and a half decade due to hunting with the hounds and running with the deer by the establishment. Initially, the brunt of the war on terror was borne by the peripheral areas but later it spilt over to the mainland.
The recent inhuman incidents in Sahiwal and Khaisur, North Waziristan, have exposed the bankrupcy of the law enforcement machinery. Thus, the powers-that-be are now left with only one option, and that is to impose such policies on people at gunpoint without the political cover they enjoyed in the 1990s.
US president Donald Trump should not see Afghanistan through the prism of Iraq, Libya and Syria, because in the Middle East, the US was either weak or had no political and moral grounds for intervention unlike Afghanistan. The reaction to haphazard withdrawal and not fulfilling its commitment might be different than Iraq and Syria.
In the worst case scenario, what would be the political consequences for the US, if Afghanistan is once again thrown to the wolves by its withdrawal? If Afghanistan again descends into anarchy, will it be saved from turning once again into a launching pad for terrorism and a theatre of regional vested interests posed as a threat to regional stability and international peace? How will it affect the image of the US as a global power if it fails to fulfil its commitment of defeating terrorism? How will President Trump account and justify to the US people the trillion of dollars spent and the spilt blood of thousands of soldiers? Would the Trump government prefer to affix the US stamp of destabilisation rather than a stabilising global power?