It is indeed tragic that whereas all the three parties to the Afghan conflict — the Afghan government, the United States and the Taliban — seek peace, it has eluded the country for over 18 years. What is even more distressing is that the US and Taliban leadership after having completed the eight round of talks were close to signing a peace deal on September 20. The credible Washington Post reported that agreement had been reached and the US was to withdraw 5,000 troops from the Afghan soil. The US chief negotiator for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, was all buoyed up hoping that his efforts were coming to fruition. However, this was not to happen as President Trump cancelled the peace talks after the attack in Kabul that killed 11 people and an American soldier in September 2019. It was indeed wrong on the part of the Taliban to have stepped up the violence at a critical phase of negotiations as an assertive tactic. Not realising that for building bridges the antagonists need to tone down their rhetoric and control firepower.
The US impeachment proceedings against President Trump are a serious distraction that is preventing him from addressing the Afghanistan issue. He would probably like to delay the peace agreement for a while and keep the Taliban in suspense. Apparently the US military is not supportive of a hasty withdrawal and this may be added reason for the delay.
Moreover, the September 2019 Afghan presidential elections have been mired in controversy. The election commission’s attempts to conduct a recount have been stopped by President Ashraf Ghani’s rival Abdullah Abdullah who feels the election process is not credible. It is unfortunate that the trust level in state institutions is so low that it invariably leads to a political crisis. It is not the first time that national elections in Afghanistan have become controversial. Even in the previous elections, Abdullah cast serious doubts on the process and the Americans found a way to pacify him by creating the post of chief executive. In Pakistan or for that matter in several developing countries, casting doubts on the credibility of the election process by the losing side has become a norm. The current street protest by Maulana Fazlur Rehman is a demonstration of this phenomenon.
President Ghani, however, feels confident of having won the elections. This has given a sense of credibility to the Afghan president and he would like to have a role in the negotiations with the Taliban. The US too would like to involve President Ghani in the talks to put pressure and lessen the importance of the Taliban leadership. Branding the Afghan government as puppets by the Taliban leadership and refusing to engage with them would only result in perpetuating the conflict. The Afghan government may not be fully representative of the people but it has earned legitimacy through elections — however imperfect they may have been. After all, Afghanistan’s experience with democracy is very new and was introduced in an extremely chaotic environment. Its other strong point is that it represents the more educated classes and is the link to the world.
For Pakistan, peace in Afghanistan is vital. No country would be that adversely affected as Pakistan if Afghanistan regrettably fails in its endeavours to find a peaceful solution to the ongoing civil war. It could result in a fresh influx of thousands of Afghan refugees, further increasing Pakistan’s security and economic challenges. In view of the unpredictability of the Afghan situation and also to regulate traffic and movement of goods and services, the Pakistan Army has stepped up fencing of the Afghan border. This was also necessary for securing the constituents of erstwhile Fata and ensuring their peaceful development. These seven entities now stand merged with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
The Afghan government initially was fiercely opposed to any kind of barrier and did create impediments but realising Pakistan is not going to give up, has since reconciled. Fencing the border has been a Herculean task in terms of logistics and security challenges and it would take another year or more to complete the project.
Most of Afghanistan’s neighbours — China, Russia, Iran and Central Asian states — are interested in promoting peace in Afghanistan even if their priorities or the groups they are supporting may be different. Ideally, the peace process should have been Afghan-led and Afghan-owned as Pakistan’s official stance has been. But in the prevailing circumstances that prospect seems unrealisable unless its neighbouring countries and the US support the effort.
China has been playing an important role in engaging with the Taliban. It is one country that has stayed away from past conflicts in Afghanistan and thus carries more weight and influence. Russia too has been hosting the Taliban and other Afghan leaders in the quest to promote peace in Afghanistan.
Pakistan in the early stages has been earnest and active in facilitating the Taliban leadership to engage in dialogue with the US. The US, although recognises Pakistan’s efforts, continues to harp on Pakistan needing to push the Taliban more. There are limits to Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban. Having dominated the battlefield and exercising about 50 to 55% control over Afghanistan’s territory, the Taliban are less amenable to outside influence.
Pakistan understandably has been wary of Indian influence on the Afghan government. Despite serious and sincere attempts by PM Imran Khan and the COAS to pursue policies that will bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, we have not been able to win over their confidence. The Afghan government’s blame game continues and there are repeated violations of the border by Afghan security forces. Sadly, they appear to be influenced by the Indian narrative and its machinations. In order to develop mutual trust, Afghanistan and Pakistan will have to step up their engagement at official and unofficial levels and refrain from public accusations against each other.
As the chapter of American involvement in Afghanistan draws closer the burden of bringing peace rests essentially on the Afghans themselves. Pakistan and other neighbours can only do so much.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 20th, 2019.