Much time has elapsed since the commencement of negotiations between the USA and the Taliban. Their respective positions have also been known for a while now which reflects vast divergence of views. In spite of that, one continued to nurture the hope that the two sides would ultimately show flexibility for reaching an accord that would lead to peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.
After completion of six rounds of talks between the two sides, that hope is gradually waning as they have failed to untangle some critical issues that would set the trajectory for an outcome of the talks including a withdrawal timeframe that the USA is to provide, and the Taliban agreeing to engage with other political groups and the government in Kabul in an all-encompassing intra-Afghan dialogue to build consensus leading to a ceasefire.
As an uncompromising proviso, the Taliban have staked the advent of peace in Afghanistan on the withdrawal of all occupying forces from the country.
Simultaneously, other countries are also undertaking endeavours to forge an environment that would be conducive to the success of peace efforts in the war-ravaged country. The most important of such initiatives has come from Russia. Its efforts have already broken some ground by putting the Taliban representatives and members of other Afghan political groups on the same table. With the first of these meetings having taken place in February, the second moot was held in Moscow on May 28 where the Taliban delegation was led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar who, incidentally, is also the leader of the delegation that is negotiating with the US in Qatar.
Russia has come out openly in support of the Taliban demand regarding withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. This was reiterated by their foreign minister at the conclusion of the recently-held gathering in Moscow.
From President Donald Trump’s announcement that he wanted the US troops out of Afghanistan by the end of last year to Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s resolve to have the agreement signed by the end of March last, it has been a long wait without any substantive progress on the difficult road to peace. The emerging indicators also don’t look encouraging with little hope on the anvil for a quick fix. The Taliban and the USA have taken positions which are conflicting both in essence and substance: the former demanding a withdrawal of troops as a precursor to a possible peace agreement, and the latter insisting that the Taliban undertake steps which they have ever so consistently and resolutely refused doing. The six rounds of parleys between the two adversaries held so far have not paved the way for either party to moderate their stated positions for ensuring continued productive engagement. The fact that none of the negotiating parties made a statement at the conclusion of the sixth round in Qatar indicates that the talks may even have stalled.
Simultaneously, other stakeholders have also redoubled their efforts for the cause of forging peace. Recently, two key personnel, German Special Envoy for Afghanistan Markus Potzel and the European Union Special Envoy for Afghanistan Roland Kobia held separate meetings with the Taliban leader Mullah Baradar. This reflects growing concerns among the international community about a lack of progress in the peace talks. It is still unclear whether these meetings were meant to reiterate the US position, or, fearing a collapse of the US-Taliban talks, these were efforts to evaluate a parallel path to peace.
The emerging scenario should also be viewed in the context of the reported visit of the Afghan President to Pakistan. The Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib recently paid a visit here to meet the top leadership including the Army Chief General Bajwa. According to some sources, this was a preparatory trip paving the way for Ashraf Ghani’s visit.
President Ghani’s tenure which ended last February has been extended to September later this year when the presidential elections are scheduled to be held, which most of the stakeholders, including the USA and the Taliban, are reported to be opposing. Instead, they want that a peace deal should be first agreed upon leading to the induction of an interim government entrusted with the task of amending the constitution based on input received from various stakeholders, including the Taliban. At the conclusion of this, understandably within a period of 18 to 24 months, the presidential elections should be held to choose a new leader. This is being opposed by President Ghani who is also averse to the idea of the interim set-up, insisting that the Taliban first engage with the Kabul government.
President Ghani’s reported forthcoming visit heralds a few questions regarding what he would expect of Pakistan at this critical juncture. A number of steps that he has taken in the recent past are perceived as an attempt to belittle Pakistan’s role in the ongoing talks between the USA and the Taliban, even questioning its sincerity in efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan. All this may have jeopardised his relevance as a serious stakeholder in efforts to build consensus to secure an elusive peace.
Having brokered the ongoing US-Taliban talks and repeatedly asserting its commitment to an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process with its role as that of a facilitator, one does not see Pakistan going beyond that parameter at this stage.
Two things appear to be happening simultaneously. The US-Taliban negotiations have not delivered the desired results, with little prospect of that happening unless one or both the parties bring about substantive changes in the way they look at things. In the absence of tangible progress, considerable space has also been created for other stakeholders to step in, with Russia successfully organising two meetings in Moscow involving the Taliban and other political groups from Afghanistan. As against a no-statement at the conclusion of the sixth round of the talks in Qatar, the Taliban and the Afghan opposition representatives claimed “tremendous progress” at the Moscow moot which did not include any officials from the Afghan government. In a joint statement, the parties said that they had “productive and constructive” discussions on issues including a possible ceasefire.
Whether one looks at the US-Taliban talks in Qatar or the meetings in Moscow, there is one factor which is common to both: the growing irrelevance of President Ghani to the prospect of peace in Afghanistan. With his opposition to the idea of an interim government and his stress on first holding elections in Afghanistan paving the way for him becoming the president a second time, he is gradually being perceived as an impediment to the peace efforts in Afghanistan.
Having contributed in no small measure to the controversy surrounding his person with his future anything but certain, his visit to Pakistan at this juncture raises many eyebrows. The best option for him would be to re-evaluate his position and take urgent steps for becoming a serious stakeholder in accelerating the pace of the peace process in Afghanistan. It is unity within the Afghan nation that would be the most potent constituent to the success of the ongoing peace endeavours. Continued intransigence from either side is not likely to serve the cause of peace.