Afghan Peace Process: Chasing a Mirage
The year 2018 is a year of contradiction for Afghanistan, primarily for two momentous yet contrasting phenomena. First, the increase in the level of violence perpetuated by various insurgent groups; second, an attempt by the international community including the US to revive the ‘peace process’ with the Taliban. Amidst push and pull between peace and conflict, violence in Afghanistan has peaked up by the mid of 2018, whereas the attempts for the renewed peace talks is still in its nascent but accelerated stage. Russia became the latest entrant in facilitating peace process when it organised international meeting on Afghanistan in Moscow on 9 November 2018. The meeting was attended by members of 11 countries. The five-member Taliban delegation too participated in the meeting along with the members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which is in charge of the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan but is considered independent of Afghan Government. Interestingly, India sent two former diplomats at non-official capacity to attend the meeting. The Taliban stressed the group would only hold direct talks with the US and not with the Kabul government. The Afghan government had abstained from the meeting, whereas representative from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow attended the proceeding but only as an observer.
At another level, the US has stepped up its engagement with the Taliban. Recent reports claim that Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador recently named as a special adviser for Afghanistan peace talks, held talks with the Taliban delegates in the United Arab Emirates on 15 September 2018. The release of the Taliban prisoners and the status of US military bases in Afghanistan were the two issues discussed during the meeting. According to Waheed Muzhda, a former Taliban official in Kabul, the “U.S. wants the Taliban to accept at least two military bases, Bagram and Shorabak [to be retained by the US for use by its troops]. The Taliban are not willing to accept it.” The Afghan Government had released 46 Taliban prisoners in July, after its first ceasefire announcement, and is not averse to the idea of a prisoner’s release or swap. However the issue of the US bases appears to be a non-negotiable to the US at the current juncture and will also not be acceptable to the Taliban because their basis of militancy is the presence of foreign (US) troops in Afghanistan. During the Moscow meet too the Taliban had made it amply clear that the main bone of contention is the presence of the US forces. According to the Taliban’s top political envoy, Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, “Considering our main demand is the withdrawal of foreign troops, we will discuss peaceful settlement with the Americans.” President Ashraf Ghani has clearly stated that the Afghan National Army will not last more than six months without US support and the Afghan Government will also collapse if the US withdraws from Afghanistan.
Therefore there is little prospect of the Taliban standing down from its inflexible position, nonetheless it appears disposed to talks. There are two strong reasons for it to hedge its bets— first, it has been able to sustain its gain over large part of the country, second it has rightly sensed the declining interest of the international community in the prolonged Afghan affairs.
Taliban on the Rebound
The principal factor that will decide the outcome of the war is the ground reality. The Taliban endured a resilient insurgency in 2017, and has continued with the momentum. As of May 15, 2018, the number of neither contested districts— controlled by neither the Afghan Government nor the insurgents increased by three this quarter to 122 districts, which means 30 percent of Afghanistan’s districts, are now contested. 13.8 percent of Afghanistan’s districts are under insurgent control or influence, a roughly one percentage-point increase from the same period in 2017. The snowballing of violence by the Taliban is further compounded by the slow yet steady rise of the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K) in some provinces of the Eastern and Northern Afghanistan.
In 2018, the Taliban has accelerated the attack cycle, and is slowly shifting towards urban centres. According to the Stratfor 2017 assessment, “The Taliban will seek to elevate its rural insurgency by seizing critical urban terrain, while Afghan Security Forces will transition to major offensive operations to regain key territory in the countryside.” As expected, it stepped up urban assaults and has launched some major offensives in urban centres, putting the Afghan Forces on the back foot. The most devastating attack was carried out in the city of Ghazni where it had launched a coordinated assault and was able to hold its seizure for 5 days, killing 100 members of Security Forces and 35 civilians, before it was recaptured. In a dastardly attack on 18 October, the Taliban attacked Afghan and the US delegates who were attending a high profile meeting with the local Governor at Kandahar. The attack killed Kandahar police Chief Gen. Abdul Raziq, while injuring the Army Gen. Scott Miller, Resolute Support commander.
Overall, the Afghan Government along with the international forces do not appear to be in a position to dictate terms to the Taliban, and therefore are least likely to extract a commensurate concession from it. The Taliban on the other hand appears upbeat, as echoed in the statement of one of the four negotiators, ““This meeting with the US authorities would either help pave the way for more meaningful talks or stop them forever.” The current Taliban position on the negotiating table reflects the ground reality, where it is able to attack at will and prolong its capture
William Maley, a leading Afghanistan expert at the Australian National University branded any peace deal with the Taliban as "a pipe dream" because the group’s extremism was fundamentally irreconcilable with any acceptable vision of Afghanistan. The pursuit for peace in Afghanistan appears to be unrealistic on almost every parameter that could possibly deliver sustainable peace. The recent developments are reflective of a ‘process for peace’ devoid of any real term engagement, premises and assessment of ground realties. Therefore, current endeavour to achieve peace appears to be nothing more than some kind of political bargaining, where the warring groups may provide some short term truce but least likely to provide long term peace. Perhaps peace in Afghanistan can come only through its non-military engagement with the global community. Something exemplified by the performance of the Afghanistan cricket team in the Asia Cup 2018. Their performance inspired Afghans across all ethnic, tribal and clan differences. Cricket has reportedly brought rival factions within the country together. Even the Taliban has supported the national cricket team.
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@ Mr Gaurav Kumar is the Associate Research Fellow at the United Service Institution of India, New Delhi.
Article uploaded on 16 Nov 2018
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI.