Perilous truce

Print edition : March 01, 2019

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (centre) speaks to U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad (to his right) at the presidential palace in Kabul on January 28. Khalilzad shared details of his recent talks with the Taliban in Qatar with Ghani and other Afghan government officials. Photo: AP

An Afghan soldier walks near a crater caused by a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, a 2018 photograph. Afghan security forces are shrinking, and the Taliban holds sway over 40 per cent of the territory. Photo: Rahmat Gul/AP

The U.S. and the Taliban reach a tentative agreement that could finally end the war in Afghanistan, but the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani is clearly unhappy.

EVEN as reports were coming in of the United States Air Force pounding Taliban positions and the Taliban mounting attacks in retaliation, the two warring sides announced to the world that they had reached a tentative agreement that could finally end the war in Afghanistan. Hundreds of Afghans, most of them innocent civilians, have died as a result of suicide bombings and U.S. air attacks in the past couple of months. The U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced in late January that the Taliban had agreed to a ceasefire and had given “a pledge” that it would not allow Afghan territory to be used as a base for terrorism-related activities.

The U.S. declared war on Afghanistan in 2001 following the September 11 attacks on the U.S. The Taliban, which was then ruling the country, had apparently given asylum to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi radical and founder of Al Qaeda, who was named as the architect of the 9/11 terror attacks. At that time the U.S. vowed to defeat the Taliban militarily and eradicate it from the Afghan political scene. However, 17 years later, the U.S. has been forced to face the ground realities and negotiate with the Taliban to end its longest-running and costliest war yet.

The U.S. has promised a withdrawal of its forces from the country. The agreement was reached after six days of talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in Doha in January. The withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan has been a long-standing demand of the Taliban for the cessation of hostilities and the holding of direct talks with the government in Kabul. Until now, the Taliban had refused to have official contacts or dialogue with the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

The two sides have so far only thrashed out the broad contours of a draft agreement to end the war. Many important details are yet to be ironed out before a final peace agreement becomes a reality. Senior Taliban officials have confirmed that special working groups will be formed to set the final dates for the departure of U.S. troops. They, however, are silent on the U.S. demand that they start talking with the representatives of the Afghan government. As of now, the Taliban continues to characterise the government in Kabul as a “puppet” government. The Taliban is also not yet willing to accept the U.S. demand for an immediate ceasefire.

Already there are voices from within the U.S. political establishment arguing for the retention of troops in Afghanistan. The Senate has voted against the proposal for U.S. troop withdrawals from both Syria and Afghanistan. President Donald Trump has, however, reiterated that he intends to carry out his plans to pull out of “the endless wars” in both countries. President Ghani, who was evidently taken by surprise by the fast-paced developments, appealed to the U.S. not to pull out its troops in haste.

Ghani’s concern

With the Taliban controlling around 40 per cent of the territory and it having shown its capacity to stage attacks against big cities, the Afghan army will find itself highly vulnerable without the support of the U.S. military. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, Ghani revealed that 45,000 Afghan security personnel had been killed since the time he took office in 2014. The Afghan security forces have been experiencing a high desertion rate and their morale is said to be at rock bottom. In his Davos speech, Ghani said it was important for the U.S. to time its departure from Afghanistan carefully.

In an address to the nation in the last week of January, Ghani expressed concern about the deal struck between the U.S. and the Taliban. He said that a rushed deal would once again engulf the country in chaos and anarchy. He pointed out that after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, lawlessness and violence prevailed for a long time and warlords ruled the roost. The mujahideen, who were then the allies of the Americans, did not keep their commitments to the international community and exterminated the remnants of the progressive regime that was in power.

“We insist on measures because we are aware of the experience of Dr Najib,” Ghani said, referring to Najibullah, who resigned as President in 1992 under a peace deal guaranteed by the United Nations. After the capture of Kabul by the Taliban, Najibullah took refuge on the U.N. premises. But ignoring all diplomatic niceties, the Taliban raided the U.N. compound and hanged Najib from a lamp post in central Kabul. “We want peace quickly, we want it soon, but we want it with prudence,” Ghani said in his speech to the nation. “Prudence is important so that we don’t repeat past mistakes.”

In a letter to Trump, Ghani urged him to let the U.S. military to remain in Afghanistan. He suggested that the number of troops could be reduced if the rising cost to the American exchequer was the sole concern. Ghani said reducing the number of troops substantially from the current level of 14,000 would help Washington save $2 billion in defence expenditure annually.

The Afghan President is upset because the U.S. did not keep him in the loop during its negotiations with the Taliban in Doha and other capitals. The Trump administration, Afghan officials fear, wants to impose an interim government in Kabul that would involve power-sharing with the Taliban.

The Afghan government would prefer to discuss such internal political matters directly with the Taliban leadership. “We should not forget that the victims of the war are Afghans, so the initiative for peace should be in the hands of the Afghans,” Ghani said.

The U.S. wants to push an agreement that entails the sharing of power between the Afghan government and the Taliban before the presidential elections in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has announced that the elections will be in July this year. The Taliban, of course, is opposed to the elections. During the parliamentary elections held last year, it disrupted the election process in broad swathes of the country. The Taliban’s attitude could change and become more accommodating if it is also allowed to contest the forthcoming election.

Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Taliban based in Doha, has assured the international community and fellow Afghans that the group does not want to “monopolise” power in a future administration. “After the end of the occupation, Afghans should forget their past and tolerate one another and live like brothers. After the withdrawal, we are not seeking a monopoly of power,” he said in an audio message to a news agency. “The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan is a shared responsibility and a pride for all Afghans.”

President Ghani remains opposed to the idea of allowing the Taliban into the government at this juncture. “Afghans do not accept the idea of an interim government—not today, not tomorrow, not in a hundred years,” he said in a recent speech.

The U.S. negotiator Khalilzad denied that the issue of forming an “interim” government was discussed with the Taliban. He, however, admitted that the Taliban wanted the issue to be on top of the agenda in the forthcoming round of talks.

The Taliban has named Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as their chief negotiator for the coming round of talks scheduled to start at the end of February. Mullah Baradar was among the top lieutenants of Mullah Omar, the late leader and emir of the Taliban movement. He is said to command deep loyalty among the rank and file of the Taliban.

Mullah Baradar was released from a Pakistani jail last October. He had run afoul of the Pakistani security establishment for trying to establish communication channels independently with the Kabul government headed by Hamid Karzai in 2010. His hideout in Karachi was raided by the joint forces of Pakistan and the U.S. The U.S. at the time was still hoping to defeat the Taliban militarily. This time it was the U.S. that insisted on the release of Mullah Baradar.

“Zalimay Khalilzad on behalf of the Americans asked us to facilitate in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table,” the Pakistan military spokesman said. “Pakistan is doing its best to make it happen.”

Trump administration officials have conveyed their appreciation for Islamabad’s help in facilitating the talks and pressuring the Taliban leadership to give concessions, at least on paper. Senator Lindsay Graham, a Republican who is known for his hawkish foreign policy views, was all praise for the Pakistani government during his visit to Islamabad in the third week of January. He said he would urge the U.S. President to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan at the earliest to help bring about a speedy end to the war in Afghanistan. Graham’s visit to Islamabad followed that of Khalilzad, who met Imran Khan and the Pakistan Army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. The visit took place when the talks with the Taliban were in danger of stalling. The Taliban’s reluctance to talk to the Afghan government in Kabul was the main stumbling block. That issue is yet to be sorted out.

The Taliban will be holding a meeting with Afghan leaders in Moscow. Among those attending that meeting will be former President Hamid Karzai and Atta Mohammed Noor, the head of the Jamat-e-Islami party. A cross section of Afghanistan’s political leadership will also be present in Moscow. The only notable absentees will be Ghani and senior members of his government.

Pakistan’s preference for a Taliban-run government in Kabul is well known. It would allegedly provide “strategic depth” for Pakistan’s military. Pakistan was also not happy with the growing influence of India in Afghanistan and its close relationship with the government in Kabul. However, the comeback of the Taliban could prove to be a double-edged sword for the government in Islamabad. It would provide a fillip for extremist groupings in the country, including the local branch of the Taliban, which is at daggers drawn with the government.

Disadvantage for India

The latest development could leave India at a serious diplomatic and strategic disadvantage in Afghanistan. India is the only country that has not bothered to establish contacts with the Taliban. India has been hoping that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would continue for the foreseeable future.

Iran, which nearly went to war with Afghanistan when the Taliban was in power, had seen the writing on the wall and started talking to the Taliban late last year. There is no love lost between the two sides, but Tehran realises that the Taliban will have a decisive say in the running of the government in Kabul sooner rather than later. Many of the areas controlled by the Taliban are along the border with Iran. With the U.S. and Saudi Arabia trying to fan insurgency among the minority Sunnis in Iran, good relations with the Taliban are a priority for Iran.

The international community has no option but to give the Taliban the benefit of the doubt. A peaceful Afghanistan will help stabilise the entire region and beyond. The strategic location of the country makes it an important corridor for trade and energy pipelines. The country itself is rich in mineral resources. The long-suffering people of Afghanistan, which has been in turmoil for almost half a century, need a break urgently.

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