'Intra-Afghan' peace talks: Taliban exerts dominance as US-backed negotiations with Afghanistan once again sideline Ashraf Ghani govt

The United States seems to have once again undermined the legitimacy of the Ashraf Ghani regime. By throwing its weight behind an “intra-Afghan” peace talks in which the Afghan government will not be represented in an official capacity, the US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has given the Afghan Taliban one more concession at the most critical phase of peace negotiations.

The intra-Afghan meeting, to be held on 7-8 July, has been brokered by Qatar and Germany. The Taliban have long avoided direct talks with the legitimate Afghan government led by president Ghani, which it regards as America’s “puppet”. A previously planned meeting in Qatar in April this year had to be cancelled at the last moment due to controversies regarding the size of Afghan delegation as well as over its status as a government body.

It is true that the Afghan government officials are going to participate in their personal capacity this time, but the fact that they have not been allowed to be represented officially is a manifestation  as much of the self-confidence of the Taliban — that whatever it demands will be accepted — as of the desperation of Khalilzad to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan.

 Intra-Afghan peace talks: Taliban exerts dominance as US-backed negotiations with Afghanistan once again sideline Ashraf Ghani govt

File photo of Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani. Reuters

Markus Potzel, Germany’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has said that Afghan government officials are participating “only in their personal capacity and on an equal footing”. There should be no doubt that the Taliban are dictating terms of negotiations with the US. Killing innocent Afghans, the Taliban continue to insist on the earliest withdrawal of American troops.

While Taliban’s political negotiators attended the seventh round of peace talks with US negotiators in Doha, which has focused on the Taliban’s assurances of preventing Afghanistan from being used by terrorist groups and a timetable for foreign troop withdrawal, Taliban’s field commanders killed two dozen pro-government troops in northern Afghanistan. And just two days into the talks, a bomb attack claimed by the Taliban in Kabul wounded around 100 people, including children.

The Taliban have been indulging in escalated violence to gain end-game advantage in the talks. The continuing violence makes a complete mockery of claims by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that “real progress” has been made in peace negotiations. Moreover, there are contradictory statements from Washington which are music to the Taliban’s ears. While President Donald Trump has said that only 9,000 American soldiers are left in Afghanistan, the US army puts the remaining figure at 14,000.

Meanwhile, Khalilzad’s Afghan plan is full of contradictions. One of the major problems is the manner in which it has legitimized the Taliban’s authority in exchange for a fragile and flimsy pledge to close terror camps in Afghan territory. Another deficiency is that it has undermined the legitimacy of the Ghani government which the whole international community, including the US, supports.

However, the biggest problem with Khalilzad’s approach is regarding Pakistan’s role. No peace in Afghanistan is possible as long as Pakistan continues to undermine Afghan sovereignty while exporting extremism and terrorism. The biggest American failure has been its inexplicable inability to stop Pakistan in its Machiavellian designs in Afghanistan because the US was involved in an almost similar effort three decades earlier against the Soviets, with help from the powerful spy agency, the ISI. Therefore it should have known what the ISI was up to. It is shocking indeed that Pakistan has successfully conducted one of the most successful covert-action programs against the US, the most powerful nation in the world. Therefore, the missing piece to the Khalilzad strategy is his inability to bring Pakistan to heel.

The Afghans are anxiously waiting to see what becomes of their country after a deal is struck between the US and the Taliban.

Khalilzad does not need to be reminded that Pakistan has been a headache. While it was a Cold War ally, the Pakistani elite has harboured a deep reservoir of distrust toward the US as the latter did not come to their rescue during Pakistan’s adventurous and ill-conceived wars with neighbouring India. The 1971 war with India, resulting in the creation of Bangladesh, shook the very foundations of Pakistan. The potency and success of Bengali ethnic nationalism posed an existential threat to Pakistan. It also led Pakistan’s security establishment to conclude that Pakistan can survive only upon the export of radical Islam so that religion, not ethnicity, becomes the primary marker of nationalism.

This pursuit of radical Islam was bound to impact neighbouring Afghanistan. Pakistan’s security establishment felt, and still feels, that a stable and independent Afghanistan could become a magnet for Pakistan’s Pashtun population. This also explains Pakistan’s sole focus: installation of a pro-Pakistan and anti-Indian government in Afghanistan.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan’s ISI provided military training and weapons to more radicalized Mujahideen groups than nationalist Afghan resistance groups. The American political establishment in general, and the CIA in particular, conveniently ignored Pakistan’s execution of the Afghan war as it was more interested in seeing the Soviets bleed than care for the long-term consequences of the penetration of the Jihadist ideology in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Muslim countries.

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Afghanistan plunged into civil war and political mayhem. After Gulbuddin Hekmatyar could not achieve Pakistan’s aims in Afghanistan, Islamabad abandoned him and co-opted the Taliban. Following the 9/11 attacks, the US-supported Hamid Karzai assumed power in Kabul. But Pakistan’s security establishment once again started propping up the Taliban as a hedge against Afghan security. Despite diplomatic protests and financial punishment, the ISI has continued to support the Taliban and Haqqani Network operating in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad’s apparent haste in stitching together a negotiated settlement may have left India in the lurch. When Russia had invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to shore up the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, India was in the Soviet camp. After the Soviet withdrawal, a bloody civil war raged in Afghanistan, setting the stage for the Taliban’s takeover of the country in 1996. Following this, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras in northern Afghanistan formed the ‘Northern Alliance’, with active support from India, Russia, and Iran, to oppose the Taliban; the Northern Alliance also supported the US-led forces to overthrow the Taliban in 2001. To Pakistan’s utter disgust, the US not only developed strategic relations with India but also allowed it to deepen its engagement with Afghanistan.

Switching sides, India seemed to be placed in the right camp after a long time. But soon the Taliban regrouped with material and ideological support from Pakistan’s security establishment to resist the presence of foreign forces, frustrating American efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

When the international community had entered into a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, it aroused much hope in India, including on the Afghan front as it created interesting strategic possibilities. There was a widespread feeling that the US could now begin moving troops and supplies through Iran and reduce its over-dependence on Pakistani territory. This would also help Washington put more pressure on Pakistan’s security establishment to stop its double game in Afghanistan. But Trump’s reckless withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and his determination to exit from the Afghan theatre has upset all these possibilities. But that does not mean making a costly deal or a deal which would be effectively mean America’s surrender.

The Taliban remain as inflexible as ever in acknowledging the legitimacy of a democratically-elected Afghan government and the Afghan constitution. If the US-Taliban deal abandons Afghanistan to the machinations of the Taliban and its patrons in Rawalpindi, there will be no peace in the region. There is no reason whatsoever why Pakistan should be allowed to go scot-free for its consistent bad behaviour in Afghanistan. If Khalilzad continues to seek a face-saving peace settlement, instead of encouraging direct talks between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan will be the sole beneficiary of this flawed process.

Updated Date: Jul 07, 2019 13:51:14 IST