The resumption of talks between the US and Taliban, after a hiatus of three months, is indicative of hectic efforts that had gone into putting the dialogue process back on track. Pakistan played behind-the-scene role in mending the fences between the Americans and Taliban. Last week the US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban delegation met in Doha to pick up the threads from where the two sides were about to sign a deal but cancelled at the last moment by President Trump on September 7 presumably on the killing of an American soldier.
In any case, resumption of talks is a positive development. What the interlocutors have to focus now is the ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue along with the earlier understanding reached on US forces withdrawal and Taliban assurances not to let Afghan territory used by extremists and terrorists. However, during the past three months’ hectic wrangling it became clear that the Taliban would have to clarify their position on ceasefire. Taliban’s reluctance to commit to ceasefire on the pretext that without firm withdrawal schedule from the US it would be difficult for the militia to agree does not elicit a favourable response anywhere, even in Pakistan.
Secondly, Taliban’s reluctance to participate in an intra-Afghan dialogue is causing discomfort not only amongst various Afghan factions but also important international players who may play an important role for the future economic stability of the country. It appears that Taliban are already behaving as a government in waiting and would only talk to other Afghan factions as junior partners. This does not augur well for the future stability of the country.
If the Taliban think that once an agreement is reached with the US things would fall in place in accordance with their wishes and plans then they are grossly misreading the situation for variety of reasons
Thirdly, the role of women in future dispensation has not been clearly defined by the Taliban despite two unofficial intra-Afghan conferences in Moscow and Doha. Mullah Baradar’s assertion that the “women rights in Afghanistan would be observed in accordance with the tenets of Islam” has not satisfied either the women participating in the conferences or international observers, including scholars from Islamic countries. The bigger issue is that if one goes by the Taliban interpretation of Islam then Bosnia, Turkey, Malaysia or Pakistan may not fall in the category of Islamic countries.
Added to the above complexities is the Washington Post’s disclosure last week about the falsehood that prevailed during the past 18 years of American presence in Afghanistan and the optical illusion thus created for each American president about the imminent victory in the war-ravaged land. In fact, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a governmental watchdog, has been warning in its reports about the wasteful expenditure that has gone on without accruing desired results of bringing stability or economic development in Afghanistan. The US efforts to train and equip Afghan security forces also faltered due to lack of motivation amongst the Afghan soldiers and high rate of desertion; appeasement of warlords and lack of control over the drug business further contributed to instability in the country. Expecting drug-lords and warlords to sue for peace would mean turkey voting for the Christmas.
The question is what objectives are likely to be achieved with the ongoing dialogue process. It seems a forgone conclusion that Taliban will be replacing the US in the country, especially when 28 September elections have thrown more uncertainties than strengthening President Ashraf Ghani’s bargaining position, a fact acknowledged by Trump administrations officials. This means Taliban will be the deciding factor in the ensuing peace process while other Afghan factions will have to settle for the secondary position.
However, if the Taliban think that once an agreement is reached with the US things would fall in place in accordance with their wishes and plans then they are grossly misreading the situation for variety of reasons. First, different ethnic groups in the country would remain formidable force who, during the past two decades, have been part of the ruling dispensation and created a niche for themselves in the power corridors. They are much better off politically and materially than during Taliban’s rule and are well connected internationally. Moreover, intra-tribal disputes would also play a crucial role for the future stability of Afghanistan. How they these complexities in the Afghan ethnic and tribal structure are accommodated in the future governance of the country would be a big challenge for the Taliban.
Second, Taliban will have to make clear their stance about the system of governance. It is not enough to say that the country would be run in accordance with the principles laid down by the Quran and Sunnah. Whether Taliban would opt for parliamentary democracy would be a major question and determine the future course of political direction for other ethnic and religious groups in the country. A one-party rule as has been the case during the Taliban rule as they did not subscribe to adult franchise; for them Taliban Shura, selected by the Amirul Momineen, is the legitimate body to rule the country according to Islamic injunctions.
Third, would the Taliban be ready to allow a residue of American forces to maintain its bases and monitor terrorist activities, including Al-Qaida and Daesh/ISIS? Related to the US presence is Taliban’s agreement to retain the present Afghan security personnel in the armed forces and police or induct their own cadres or assimilate Taliban cadres into the Afghan armed forces. So far the US has been sustaining the Afghan security forces; almost 90% of Afghan security forces budget is paid by the US which is approximately 5-6 billion dollars per annum. A sustained financial and equipment support of Afghan armed forces would be necessary which could be contributed by the US and other NATO allies as well as GCC countries.
Fourth, the ongoing dialogue is vulnerable to spoilers’ machination whether within Afghanistan or their external supporters. Certainly, drug-barons and warlords would not favour peace returning to Afghanistan. Similarly, fringe elements in Afghan politics would be looking for external spoilers. For India, acceptance of Taliban rule would mean cessation of anti-Pakistan activities through the Afghan soil, which India is likely to resist unless counseled by the US and other international stakeholders.
Despite myriad challenges, diplomatically, Taliban are better equipped now then two decades ago. They have working relationship with Iran, China, Russia, KSA, Qatar, UAE, and major European countries as well as Central Asian states. They have also assured Afghanistan’s neighbours that their movement is not outward looking and have no truck with AL Quida or Daesh/ISIS. While reassuring, Taliban’s behaviour would be closely monitored by the international community. In this regard, China, Iran and Russia, can play a crucial role in further consolidating the Afghan peace through active engagement with the future dispensation in Afghanistan. Similarly, Taliban’s attitude towards other religious and ethnic groups would largely determine the contours of Afghan polity and prospects of peace and stability in the country.
For Pakistan, the best course would be to follow “positive neutrality” towards Afghan groups which would mean engaging all Afghan factions without playing favourites. The underlying lesson for Pakistan is that a peaceful Afghanistan would always be a source of strength for Pakistan irrespective of the fact as to who rules that country.
The writer is a former ambassador