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Afghan peace on the horizon

Last hurdle overcome with the release of final batch of 400 Taliban prisoners

Afghan peace on the horizon

SALLIENCE: The US-Taliban pact, signed in Doha in February, hasn’t lost traction.

MK Bhadrakumar

former ambassador

THE expectations are high that the long-awaited intra-Afghan peace talks will commence in Doha this week. Washington has literally frog-marched the Afghan government headed by Ashraf Ghani to the peace talks, overcoming its delaying tactics. The US-Taliban pact, signed in Doha in February, had chalked out that the talks would commence on March 10 and the amazing salience is that the pact hasn’t lost traction.

Hopefully, beyond the November election cycle, the US will keep its eyes on the ball, given the Taliban’s opaque negotiating style. Pakistan’s role has become crucial. India has done the right thing by moving into the shade.

The last hurdle to the talks was overcome when the US arm-twisted Ghani to release the final batch of around 400 Taliban prisoners who had been indicted for violent crimes. In a face-saving formula, Ghani called a ‘Loya Jirga’ to legitimise his turnaround on prisoner release. The Taliban feel vindicated. In remarks to the Voice of America, the Taliban spokesman sought ‘flexibility’ by both sides, saying, ‘This conflict cannot be solved unilaterally. If they want a solution, then we too are looking for same, and God willing, we will hopefully find a solution.’

The US too has injected an air of optimism. A statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 6, anticipating the outcome of the Loya Jirga, noted that ‘The Taliban have also committed to significantly reduce violence and casualties during the talks where the parties will decide on a political map to end the… war and agree on a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. The United States intends to hold the Taliban to these commitments.’

Pompeo added that in a post-settlement era, the US would still keep its eye on the ball — maintaining ‘substantial security assistance’; expanding its development programmes; remaining committed to investment plans; and ‘improving regional economic ties and connectivity,’ especially through joint infrastructure projects funded by the aid agencies.

The US estimates that the forthcoming intra-Afghan talks will be productive. Such optimism stems also from the broadening political consensus in Kabul lately towards the Doha talks. A triumvirate of Ghani, former president Hamid Karzai and former chief executive officer Abdullah is driving the peace process on the Afghan government side. It projects a level of unity and statesmanship unthinkable until very recently.

On July 30, in an appearance before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo divulged a timeline for the total troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. To quote him, ‘We have entered into agreement (with the Taliban). We will go to zero, we’ll get our forces out of there. I think it’s May of next year.’ Subsequently, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper disclosed that US troops will be reduced to ‘a number less than 5,000’ by November-end.

President Trump has a deal here: the intra-Afghan talks dovetail with his re-election campaign for November. That, in turn, becomes the surest guarantee of progress at Doha. Trump is the winner in the near term.

Reports indicated a major recasting of the Taliban negotiating team. The 20-member team now has 13 figures drawn from the Taliban’s leadership council. The new inductees include key figures such as Mullah Yaqoob (eldest son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar), Sheikh Mohammad Qasim Turkman and Anas Haqqani Zadran. Analysts have speculated that the rotation of senior religious scholars and hardened military commanders in the Taliban’s team aims to build consensus within the different wings of the movement, and enhances the authority of the political office in Doha to speak for the entire organisation. Equally, it could be aimed at strengthening Pakistan’s capacity to leverage the peace process. But one crucial part still remains nebulous — the Taliban’s perspectives on peace.

The Taliban’s negotiating positions on reconciliation, power-sharing and governance remain ambiguous. Several complex issues are involved here such as constitutional reforms and political system; the Taliban’s concept of ‘inclusive’ government; the restructuring of Afghan security forces and integration of Taliban fighters; rights of women and minorities; the Taliban’s ambitions for a post-war era, etc.

The Taliban staunchly resist a public denunciation of al-Qaeda which compelled the US to scale down expectations to a call to them to prevent the Afghan territory being used to stage terrorist attacks on the US and its allies, and draw ‘red lines’ to that effect. The UN has highlighted the presence of terrorist groups on Afghan soil, but the Taliban regard them as Muslim dissidents forced into exile. The choice for the international community is to accept the Taliban’s word and suspend disbelief.

Clearly, the intra-Afghan dialogue has a formidable task ahead to prepare a road map for the transition from armed insurgency to ‘Islamic governance’. The US hopes to lean on Pakistan to navigate the way forward. But the US election in November introduces new uncertainties.

The 2020 Democratic Platform which turns its back on the US’ ‘forever wars’ and ‘militarised’ foreign policy, says: “Democrats are committed to a durable and inclusive peace settlement in Afghanistan that ensures that al-Qaeda isn’t allowed to reconstitute, the Islamic State isn’t allowed to grow, and the international community can help Afghans safeguard hard-fought gains, especially for women and girls.” Hopefully, beyond the November election cycle, the US will keep its eyes on the ball, given the Taliban’s opaque negotiating style. The Taliban and Pakistan would probably trade compromises to extract their highest priorities. A pattern was discernible at the Doha negotiations. Therefore, Pakistan’s role becomes crucial. India has done the right thing by moving into the shade. The India-Pakistan tensions need not cast a shadow on the Afghan peace process. The two evergreen adversaries should agree that regional peace and stability can be in their mutual interest.

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