Amidst claims of progress, albeit labored and fragmentary, in the ongoing talks between the United States (US) and the Taliban, concomitant reports of regular, violent and widespread clashes between the Taliban and Afghan government troops much before the time the ‘Spring Offensive’ has traditionally been announced, showcase how delicate and complex the process towards peace in Afghanistan actually is. By constantly interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and proffering inappropriate and intrusive comments on this fragile process while it is ongoing, Pakistan, much to the chagrin of the Afghan and US governments, is repeatedly putting spokes in the wheel.
After the last marathon round of 16 days of intensive talks in Doha between the delegations led by Zalmay Khalilzad, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the lead Taliban negotiator, that concluded on 12 March, both the US and Taliban negotiators proclaimed that they had prepared a draft agreement on the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban's commitment to sever ties with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Zalmay Khalilzad said immediately after the meeting that “peace requires agreement on four issues: counterterrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue, and a comprehensive ceasefire,” adding, “When the agreement in draft about a withdrawal timeline and effective counterterrorism measures is finalized, the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government, will begin intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire”. Abdul Ghani Baradar, meanwhile, said in an eight-minute audio-taped interview posted online by the Taliban on 14 March that “we are very hopeful for the peace talks, because the latest round had some good dialogues which paved the way to more progress regarding peace in the future”.
While the achievements in this round of negotiations were substantial, it is important to underline that the two subjects that figure in the draft agreement both pertained to decisions that lay within the direct ambit of the two negotiating sides. The US was effectively competent to decide upon a timeframe for withdrawal of its troops, as was the Taliban on whether it wished to partner with Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Neither needed the concurrence of the Afghan government or civil society for this.
Despite the optimism projected by both the negotiators, the more knotty and contentious issues of an inter-Afghan dialogue and a ceasefire have not thus far been touched upon. The first of these two issues has proved to be a hornet’s nest on account of a number of factors, primary of which is the Taliban’s avowed disinclination to talk to the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani, which it portrays as a puppet installed by the US. The Taliban would much rather talk to disparate Afghan factions of various hues as their disunity and susceptibility to manipulation would work to its advantage. The meeting between a Taliban delegation and opposition politicians and some members of civil society, including former President Hamid Karzai, in Moscow in February is a case in point. More recently, after Zalmay Khalilzad announced in a statement on 7 April that “representatives of the Afghan government and wider society will participate” in an intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha on 14-15 April, and Omar Daudzai, President Ghani's senior adviser on reconciliation affairs, said on the same day that a government delegation would go to Doha to “exchange views with the Taliban” and “present a unified position of the people of Afghanistan”, the Taliban responded by stressing that those attending the Doha talks will not be representing the Afghan government but will only “participate in a personal capacity”. The Taliban added that these representatives “will only be clarifying their views and policies and sharing their stance with others”, rather than engaging in peace negotiations.
The Taliban’s unwillingness to talk to the Afghan government has put the US on a sticky wicket. The US views the Afghan government as the legitimate representative of the people of the country, and has since the presidency of Barack Obama deemed its presence in the peace talks essential. The situation has changed somewhat under President Donald Trump, though, primarily due to his eagerness to get US troops out of Afghanistan quickly. Barnett Rubin, a former US State Department official presently with the New York University's Center for International Cooperation, explained that given this hurry “the choice the US faced was between direct negotiations with the Taliban and no negotiations at all. I am sure that the US government would have much preferred direct Taliban-government talks or a trilateral format, but the Taliban refused”. The Taliban’s refusal to budge from its position has also forced the US to dilute the role that it has traditionally envisaged for the Afghan government in the peace talks. The US now sees the Afghan government as one of three Afghan stakeholders, and not as the key player. This was apparent from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement in February that the “Afghan government, other Afghan leaders, and the Taliban” needed “to sit together and negotiate a political settlement”.
This denigration has irked the Afghan government. It drew a sharp reaction from President Ghani’s National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, who on 14 March accused the US of “decreasing the legitimacy of the Afghan government”. Drawing parallels with imperial British India, he also suggested that Khalilzad harbored the ambition of becoming the “Viceroy” of Afghanistan. He said of Khalilzad, “The reason he is delegitimizing the Afghan government and weakening it, and at the same time elevating the Taliban, can only have one approach. It's definitely not for peace”. Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst, opined that by keeping the Afghan government out of the negotiations, the Taliban wanted to “reduce the legitimacy of the Afghan government to a minimum and thus further strengthen its bargaining position vis-a-vis the United States and extract maximum advantage”. Mir believes that it is not just the Afghan government that stands to lose due to this approach, but “all of those who have defended the constitutional process for the past 18 years”. President Ghani, meanwhile, proposes to convene a consultative ‘Loya Jirga’, a traditional assembly of tribal, ethnic, and religious leaders, on 29 April to seek a national consensus on talks with the Taliban.
The other issue of a ceasefire will, in all likelihood, not figure on the Taliban’s list of priorities till it is able to squeeze out all the concessions that it aims to from the “Afghan government and other Afghan leaders”. The Taliban has amply demonstrated this by carrying out a spate of bloody attacks even as the talks were ongoing. On the very day the US and Taliban delegations concluded the latest round of negotiations in Doha, 20 Afghan soldiers were killed, 10 were wounded and another 20 captured by the Taliban in Badghis province in western Afghanistan. Throughout March, hundreds of Afghan forces were reportedly killed or wounded in clashes in southern, western and northern Afghanistan. Two US Special Forces troops were killed near Kunduz. Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum survived a Taliban attack on his convoy in northern Afghanistan in end-March that killed one of his bodyguards. Meanwhile, according to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, 94 Taliban militants were killed in a single clash near Kunduz city.
The violence has continued into April, with 3 US troops being killed and 3 wounded by an improvised explosive device close to Bagram airfield near Kabul, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility. About 2,000 Taliban fighters attacked a government compound and army base in Bala Murghab district in western Badghis province on 4-5 April, killing over 32 Afghan troops. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said recently that the group would launch its spring offensive in about a month.
Once again exposing its devious intentions in its neighbourhood, Pakistan has not been able to resist the temptation to add its bit to this already labyrinthine scenario. Afghans, cutting across party affiliations, have taken strong umbrage to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statement to the media on 25 March that the Afghan government was “a hurdle in the peace process” and that an interim government would help break the deadlock in the ongoing talks. President Ghani’s deputy spokesperson Samim Arif in an article on 3 April responded that “Pakistan should be convinced to end hostilities towards Afghanistan. The Taliban and their affiliates who engage in violence in Afghanistan have been doing so with the blessing and encouragement of Islamabad. A peace settlement can only be agreed on if and when Pakistan learns to respect the sovereignty of Afghanistan and gives up its ambition to forcefully bring its neighbour under its sphere of influence. Pakistan most recently made its opposition to a sovereign, united and fully independent Afghanistan apparent when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called the Kabul government a ‘hurdle to peace talks’ and suggested setting up an interim government in the country. An interim government means going back to square one, scrapping the constitution and reversing the gains of the past 18 years. The people of Afghanistan, who fought long and hard for their independence, have no intention of agreeing to any peace process that would deprive the country of its sovereignty”.
Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah reacted by saying that “the remarks about Afghanistan’s future ... that were expressed by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, are not acceptable for any Afghan citizen”. The Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs put it more eloquently when it said that the Afghan government “deemed such statements an obvious example of Pakistan's interventional policy and disrespect to the national sovereignty and determination of the people of Afghanistan”. Former Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar termed Khan's comment as “willful interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs”. His spokesperson added that “Afghanistan is an independent country and it is up to Afghans to decide how we run our government”. Idrees Stanikzai, the leader of Youth Trend Afghanistan, averred that “the Pakistanis want a government that pleases the Taliban, and the Taliban in the Afghan government will oblige Pakistan”.
Afghanistan recalled its Ambassador from Islamabad the day after Khan made the comments and demanded an explanation for his “irresponsible” remarks. This was, astonishingly, the third time in just over a month that Afghanistan had been compelled to demand an explanation from Pakistan over its inappropriate comments related to the peace talks. The fourth was, preposterously, just a few days away. Imran Khan, at a rally in Pakistan on 5 April, once again raked up his 25 March statement and described it as “brotherly advice” to the Afghan government. An indignant Afghan foreign ministry sought another explanation from Pakistan on its “explicit interference in internal affairs of Afghanistan”.
The US government also took strong exception to Pakistan’s blatant interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Zalmay Khalilzad termed Khan's comments as “inappropriate”, adding that “the future of Afghanistan is for Afghans, and only Afghans, to decide”. The US Ambassador to Afghanistan John R Bass tweeted, “Some aspects of #cricket apply well in diplomacy, some do not. @ImranKhanPTI, important to resist temptation to ball-tamper with the #Afghanistan peace process and its internal affairs. #AfgPeace — John R. Bass (@USAmbKabul) March 27, 2019”.
The path to peace in Afghanistan is neither going to be easy nor quick. The complexity of the issues that are there on the table, the widely divergent visions for Afghanistan that the various stakeholders have, the upper hand that the Taliban seems to have wrested at the talks so far, and the keenness of the US to exit the country, all render the situation both sensitive and fragile.
In these circumstances it would behove the international community, especially Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, to adopt a constructive and supportive role in the war ravaged nation’s reconciliation and reconstruction. Pakistan, quite to the contrary, seems more intent on proving to the Afghan people that being a neighbour often does not translate into being a well-wisher.