By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
When US President Donald Trump suddenly called off the nine-month long talks with the Taliban on September 8, at a time when a settlement was in the offing, all hopes of a restoration of peace in Afghanistan appeared to have evaporated.
Trump was under pressure from the military not to opt out of Afghanistan entirely. He himself did not fancy going into election year 2020 with the embarrassment of having handed over Afghanistan on a platter to an insurgent group which the US had bitterly fought for 18 years.
It was also thought that the Taliban did not want peace which was why it was unleashing violence even as talks were on. It killed an American soldier which Trump considered too callous to be tolerated. The theory was that the Taliban did not want to accept the US condition that it accommodate the US-backed regime in Kabul in a settlement.
Taliban’s Eagerness To Talk
Surprisingly, the Taliban regretted Trump’s decision to call off the talks and said that the talks were the way forward. But according to the Kabul government this was because the Taliban had “lost command and control”. It was also said that it was becoming difficult for the Taliban to keep its cadre from deserting. The third reason was that the Taliban had entered a diplomatic mode having liaisons with Russia and China besides the US and Pakistan which made it difficult to foreclose the talks process.
The Taliban’s conciliatory statements made Trump rethink. He decided to make use of Pakistan to get across to the Taliban again. At the same time, Pakistan needed the US to settle some its issues with India. Prime Minister Imran Khan needed the US to persuade India to back out of the full absorption of the “disputed” State of Jammu and Kashmir. Imran was encouraged by Trump’s repeated offer to mediate between Pakistan and India on the Kashmir issue. Not surprisingly, Imran agreed to host talks between the US and the Taliban in Pakistan.
Last week, US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad arrived in Islamabad with a five-member team as did the Taliban with an 11-member delegation headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. It was not clear if the Khalilzad and Baradar would meet to talk, but the Pakistan Foreign Office said in a statement that: “The visit would provide an opportunity to review the progress made under the US-Taliban peace talks so far, and discuss the possibilities of resuming the paused political settlement process in Afghanistan.”
A US embassy official in Islamabad said: “These consultations follow discussions held between the United States and Pakistan during the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week.”
It appears that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is not averse to talks with the Kabul regime as he had been talking to that regime in 2010 when Hamid Karzai was President of Afghanistan. When US and Pakistan intelligence arrested Baradar in Karachi in 2010, Karzai had protested saying that it had disrupted his efforts to come to a settlement with the Taliban.
Taliban commander, Sayed Akbar Agha, noted that the Islamabad visit is part of a Taliban tour of four countries – Russia, China and Iran and Pakistan to talk about the reason for the deadlocked talks.
The Pakistani ambassador to Kabul, Zahid Nasrullah Khan, met with the Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul. According to a press release issued from Abdullah’s office, the Pakistani envoy briefed Abdullah on a high level delegation of Taliban to Islamabad and promised to push the Taliban delegation to support the Afghan peace process and engage in intra-Afghan talks.
Even as tentative moves were being made to kick-start the stalled US-Taliban talks, a controversial Presidential election was held in Afghanistan.The Independent Election Commission (IEC) said that it had registered over nine million voters, but only 2.5 million people voted.
The principal contestants were incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. Presently, Afghanistan has a National Unity Government (NUG) with rivals Ghani and Abdullah sharing power. Results are expected to be announced on October 19.
While the US State Department has hailed the election as a victory of democracy over terrorism, most common Afghans wondered if the exercise was corruption free and worth it.
In Afghanistan, as in other South Asian countries, democratic institutions do not work on the concept of “a common citizenship” but on primordial loyalties to social groupings based on ethnicity, language, and religion, apart from kinship and tribalism. Rules are bent to accommodate these loyalties and commitments making a mockery of the modern Western concept of common “citizenship”, equality before law and the Rule of Law.
This is why there is disillusionment in the voting population. “We voted five years ago despite security threats, but it did not work,” a news agency quoted Sami Sultani, a resident of Kabul, as saying. “We participated but again we saw fraud,” said Hamid, a resident of Kabul.
Giving the disillusionment with democracy, the voting percentage has been coming down steeply from 70% in 2004 to about 2.5 million out of nine million now.
According to Afghan commentator Mohammad Zahir Akbari, Afghans took to democracy with enthusiasm after the oppressive Taliban was overthrown by US forces in 2001. They saw democracy as a panacea and as a way of ending destructive conflicts and social and tribal dissensions. But over time, democracy has proved to be vacuous.
Questions are raised whether the soil of Afghanistan is conducive to the tree of democracy or it has not been planted properly, Akbari says .The main feature of the democratic system is gaining of power through transparent elections. But this has not happened in Afghanistan.
Needs of ethnic collectivities have over-ruled individual rights. “Childish emotions” rather than rational thinking have got the better of Afghan politicians. The other feature of democracy is a meaningful role for the political parties. But Afghan parties are not parties in the Western sense of the term. The major political parties are ethnicity-based and work for ethnic interests and not the overall Afghan national interest.
The Jamiat-i-Islami represents the Tajiks; Hizb-i-Islami represents he Pashtuns; the Junbesh-i-Milli represents the Uzbeks; and two Hizb-i-Wahdat represents the Hazaras. Many of them also function as tribal or communal militias, fighting and killing each other as they jostle for power.
Since politics is nothing more than jockeying for power and retention of power by fair means or foul, it is based on division and conflicts rather than cooperation for the common good.
“Some political parties based on ethnicity invent enemies, so as to continue their games. It can be said that ethnic leaders and voting banks are obstacles to the institutionalization of democracy in Afghanistan,” Akbari says.
Security Threats: The Most Pressing Challenge
Insecurity remains the most pressing challenge ahead of the voter registration process. According to the April report of the Special Inspector General of Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) Afghanistan experienced 56 security incidents per day. More than 70 centers across the country, remained closed.
Threats and attacks by the Taliban and the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), both of whom oppose mainstream politics and the elections process, have also hampered voter registration and voting.