us afghanistan: View: Towards an Afghan ceasefire; Pakistan dictating terms to US?


By Vivek Katju

US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad’s latest round of extended talks with Taliban representatives in Doha resulted in remarkable movement last week, pregnant with positivity for the long-suffering country but also of possible dangers that may cause deep and continuing instability. Khalilzad tweeted that the talks had secured “elements of progress on vital issues”.

While not disclosing them he mentioned that no agreement was reached on a ceasefire and on the nature of the “intra-Afghan” dialogue that would take place to move Afghanistan to peace and stability. From Doha he proceeded to Kabul to brief President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah who lead the National Unity Government (NUG).

Reports indicate that the US has agreed to the key Taliban demand for the withdrawal of foreign forces. On its part, Taliban has accepted the important US condition, that it would neither have any connection with international terrorist groups such as al-Qaida nor allow Afghanistan’s territory to be used by such organisations. Both these points need to be considered in context.

Donald Trump became committed to getting US troops out of Afghanistan during his presidential campaign. Initially he sought to pressure Pakistan to close Taliban safe havens and compel it to negotiate with NUG. However, the absence of effective and concrete steps to back Trump’s Twitter threats exposed their hollowness. It also became apparent that he had lost faith and patience with his generals to rein in Taliban. Four months ago Trump abandoned bluster and conceded to Taliban demand for direct negotiations. Doing so he revealed a position of extreme weakness which only consolidated Taliban rigidity.

Over these past months Taliban, with Pakistan behind it, has virtually dictated terms to the US as the, till now, agreed Doha elements bear witness. On the withdrawal of US forces it matters little that Trump also wants them to return home. What will play is that Taliban has prevailed upon the US.

The Taliban agreement to break contacts with al-Qaida is not greatly surprising because Taliban was always an Afghanistan oriented group. It developed links with al-Qaida when it captured Jalalabad in September 1996; Osama bin Laden had taken refuge there since April that year. Their relations became strong and Taliban did not abandon him after 9/11 but its focus never shifted from Afghanistan.

It is noteworthy that Khalilzad used the formulation “intra-Afghan” instead of ‘NUG-Taliban’ dialogue. There is a basic difference between the two and signifies a major concession to Taliban, which has considered NUG as a US puppet. It implies that Taliban will negotiate with an array of Afghan groups and not exclusively with NUG about the country’s constitutional and political future. It is unlikely that Ghani will easily agree to this approach for it seriously erodes his credibility.

While NUG needs to appoint a credible negotiating team and reach out to all sections of Afghan political opinion it should not be bypassed. That would set the clock back. It would make the next Afghan presidential election, slated for July and for which Ghani and Abdullah have announced their candidatures, irrelevant. It would also lead to a demand for the establishment of an interim government on the lines appointed at the Bonn meeting in 2001.

All this would put the country into unchartered waters and lead to the fatal splintering of its politics potentially on ethnic lines. If that were to happen then could the ethnic splintering of the Afghan National Security Forces be avoided? This would be a recipe for disaster, evoking memories of the situation in the 1990s.

That analogy is apt especially as Taliban have not agreed to a ceasefire. This implies that the group and NUG, or its successor, should presidential elections be held, can be locked in armed struggle for control while a dialogue is on. While war and negotiations can go along simultaneously it makes dialogue very difficult to sustain if terrorist actions continue. Taliban may worry that if they agree to a ceasefire with NUG their fighters may have no incentive left for fighting. That is an internal Taliban problem and should not lead to an unwarranted concession to it.

Some US commentators warn that Trump could withdraw US forces even without an agreement with Taliban. He is emphasising that important regional countries should shoulder the burden of creating stable conditions in Afghanistan instead of the US which is “six thousand miles away”. If a US forces withdrawal of this kind takes place it may precipitate a general lack of confidence in the already tenuous Afghan polity plunging the country into greater violence and instability. That would draw in the regional countries who would act to protect their interests in an ethnic-driven Afghan breakdown.

Pakistan is taking satisfaction that its view on resolving the Afghanistan problem is proving correct. Taliban is stressing to the US and others, including India, that it is an independent actor, not a creature of Pakistan. The fact is that Pakistan continues to have great leverage over it but does not, at this time, entirely control it.

At this stage of great fluidity in Afghan affairs, India’s interests require the intensification of contacts with all groups, including Taliban. Despite the coming Lok Sabha elections India must not take its eye off the Afghan situation but enhance its diplomatic interaction on the issue.

The writer is former secretary, MEA

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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