Come Saturday and the world’s eyes will be riveted to Doha where the US and Taliban are slated to sign what would be a historic peace deal between two of the fiercest rivals in recent war history. Qatar is playing a gracious host — as it has on a number of occasions in the past — and has invited Pakistan, too, which has played a central role in trying to make this happen against all odds.
While understandably, there was a great sense of relief at the simultaneous announcement last week by the US and Taliban of an impending peace deal and the subsequent week-long ceasefire that is conditioned to it (mercifully, holding at the time of writing this), the stakes are high, especially given the complexities of the undertaking and uncertainty that has always engulfed war-torn Afghanistan. Any peace process therefore, can only be looked at from the prism of cautious optimism at best.
There is however, no doubt that all parties to the conflict are heartily tired of war. The Americans want out, having lost more than 2,400 personnel and trillions of dollars that were consumed in keeping the US war machine running for nearly two decades. In fact, President Donald Trump is so desperate to have the maximum number of troops return home before he seeks re-election this year that his administration flipped open a moribund relationship with Pakistan last year to seek its help to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table.
As a first step, President Trump wrote an official letter in this regard to Prime Minister Imran Khan, reinforcing the long-held stance of the Pakistani leader, who has been a vocal proponent of talks with the militia since his early days in politics, and which earned him the wrath of many who thought it was a preposterous idea. Nearly two decades of a draining war later, the Americans have themselves come around and been seriously engaged in dialogue with the Taliban for more than a year now.
Earlier this week, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi recalled in a statement how it all sprang from the lowest ebb in ties with Washington.
“(US Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo told me that the pathway to fixing relations between Pakistan and US came through Kabul. Now, I would like to remind him that we have fulfilled all our promises. Not only did we build a peace team but we also played our role in ensuring that the negotiations were successful,” he said.
The first signs of a deal were apparent last year when President Trump said he was readying to invite key Taliban figures to a secret meeting in Camp David, Maryland with Afghan president, but summarily cancelled it when a US sergeant was killed in a suicide attack in Kabul last September.
Despite the setback, Islamabad had to bring all its experience, energy and power of persuasion to get the two parties back to the negotiating table. “The world knows that the two sides have been fighting for over 19 years. After US President Donald Trump cancelled the peace process in a single tweet after a death (of a US soldier), it was Pakistan who convinced the US to restart negotiations,” Qureshi noted.
Even though the Taliban were equally belligerent when Trump called the talks “dead” and vowed to inflict more damage, it is perhaps, not very hard to imagine that there is, over all, very little enthusiasm for a meandering existence in the theatre of a war with seemingly no end.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy Taliban leader and head of the Haqqani network — a US-designated terrorist group fighting US-led Nato and Afghan forces in Afghanistan — could not have been more forthcoming on the hour of reckoning. In a surprise oped piece for The New York Times entitled What Taliban Want earlier this week, he spoke categorically of his militia’s commitment to keep the deal.
Admitting he is “convinced the killing and maiming must stop”, Haqqani wrote: “We are about to sign an agreement with the United States and we are fully committed to carrying out its every single provision, in letter and spirit”. Removed from the militia’s oppressive rule in the past, he appeared to offer a new social contract that would allow for “a new, inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded”.
That being said, the reality is that it would take a great deal to make the proposed peace deal work in the long term even if it survives the pangs of birth. The intra-Afghan political reconciliation is a virtual maze and it will require more than just a leap of faith from one or two partners to find a way out. The country — and its vulnerable government — is still coming to terms with a disputed presidential election last September and solving it is key to future settlements because in the next phase of the process, the Afghan government and Taliban will be on the negotiating table. For this to effectively materialise, President Ashraf Ghani who has been declared winner, and his rival contestant Abdullah Abdullah, who rejected the results and simultaneously claimed victory, will have to reconcile — by no means an easy proposition.
With Ghani insisting on leading the talks, but other Afghan parties seeking more inclusive representation, it will test the resolve of the Americans, the main interlocutors on behalf of Kabul. Contrast this with the united Taliban who may find other power groups and warlords willing to form alliances in a widening turf, which would hardly bring the government in Kabul any solace.
It is interesting to note that the Taliban have shown no proclivity yet towards a permanent ceasefire and this may stem from the uncertainty surrounding the rather complex nature of the Afghan power chessboard. Under the proposed agreement, approximately, 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the American and Afghan authorities will be released, which would reinforce the militia. For now, the Taliban leadership is holding their cards close to their chests.
Mindful of these realities, Islamabad has repeatedly underscored the need for Afghans to take charge of their affairs and ensure the transition is in line with the aspirations of the Afghan people who yearn for peace and stability. Ultimately, lasting peace would require the process to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
The writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi
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