By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Given the many conflicting interests, different political agendas, stated and hidden goals and clashing timelines, peace in Afghanistan is by no means an immediate possibility, though a US-Taliban peace deal was signed with fanfare in Doha on February 29.
Nobody is more aware of this that the chief US negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad. In a very candid interview to the Afghan news agency Tolo News on March 10, Khalilzad said that despite President Donald Trump’s eagerness to withdraw US troops in 14 months, the pull-out is “condition-based” and not automatic.
The prevailing situation is marked by three factors: (1) differences between the Afghan government and the Taliban on prisoner release; (2) differences between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah; (3) the Taliban’s continued attacks on government forces. “ The deal between the US and the Taliban will lose significance if this situation continues” Khalilzad warned.
He even hinted that the Doha agreement was entered into, not with the surety that peace would arrive, but only “to test whether it is possible to end the conflict in Afghanistan through political means and negotiations.”
But as it turned out, several things happened since February 29, which have been discouraging. The Chief Executive Officer in the Ashraf Ghani government and defeated Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah challenged the election “victory” of Ghani and held a parallel oath-taking ceremony. President Ghani, who was endorsed by the US, went back on the Doha agreement to release of 5000 Taliban prisoners before political talks begin. Ghani, who was not part of the Doha talks, argued that because he was kept away from the talks, he could not be party to any of the conditions agreed upon there. On the other hand, the Taliban said that Ghani was breaching the agreement and, in anger, it resumed attacks on the Afghan government forces causing huge casualties. The peace deal was on the rocks.
But Khalilzad was not surprised. “The agreement is based on what is taken in exchange for what is given. It is a totally conditions-based agreement,” he explained to Tolo News.
“It’s very clear that any withdrawal (by the US) will be conditions-based, it is very important for the Afghan people to be aware that if all the conditions that exist in the agreement are implemented, if there is an assurance to the US and the world about threats from the Afghan soil, if there are intra-Afghan talks that we pray to yield an outcome, then the US will not see it necessary to stay here. We don’t want to leave in a situation where there is still a war going on in the country; we understand people’s concerns, that’s why we are trying to restore peace. If they (the Taliban) launch attacks on Afghan forces, we will be there to defend the Afghan forces, so we are mounting pressure on the Taliban to not resort to violence,” the US negotiator said.
However, although the US is negotiating only with the Taliban, it is not abandoning or sidelining the elected government in Kabul, he said. “The US recognizes the Afghan government as a legitimate and strategic partner, not anyone else.”
Khalilzad also said that the US will not allow the Taliban to establish an “Islamic Emirate” based on the Shariah. “It’s a red line for the international community; there is international consensus regarding this matter.”
Taliban’s Lust For Monopoly
While all sides in the conflict have been responsible for the 40 year war and the current mess, the Taliban’s lust for monopolistic power is the root cause of the failure of attempts at peace. A study of insurgent and terrorist groups will reveal that, unlike States, militant groups negotiate, not to find common ground for a peaceful settlement, but to buy time with the aim of attaining monopolistic power. Unlike States, militant groups think that the winner should take all and the vanquished should get nothing. In fact the militants believe in the annihilation of the loser. Sharing power is anathema.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was a case in point. Successive Sri Lankan governments believed that meaningful talks could be held with the LTTE and a settlement involving sharing of power with other groups, including the Center, could be arrived at, but the LTTE would always walk away from talks citing one reason or the other. Ditto for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Tracing the history of failed talks, the BBC says: Years before 9/11, the Clinton administration secretly contacted the Taliban several times to get it to hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden who was then in hiding in Afghanistan. But all that the US got was empty promises from the Taliban. Eventually, the tough George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and ousted the Taliban from power. But the Taliban took shelter in neighboring Pakistan, ironically an US ally, and started attacking US forces from there. The bloody insurgency inflicted colossal losses on US and the Afghan security forces.
However, even as fighting continued, the US attempted to hold talks with the Taliban in 2004 and again in 2011, but again, to no avail. In 2015, the Afghan government held its first face-to-face talks with the Taliban in Pakistan. But these too collapsed. The Taliban spurned the offer of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to formally recognize the Taliban as a political party so that it could tread the democratic path. In September 2018, the US appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as a Special Peace Envoy, launching a new effort to talk. In May 2019, a “Loya Jirga” which is a large assembly of senior Afghan dignitaries, called for an “immediate and permanent” ceasefire. But that the Taliban turned a deaf ear to it.
However, perhaps due to pressure from Russia, China and Pakistan, and President Trump’s anxiety to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban started talks with Khalilzad in Doha. The Doha talks focused on a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces in exchange for counter-terrorism promises, a ceasefire, and the opening of negotiations with the Kabul government. President Donald Trump even announced that he would withdraw US troops (barring 8,000) by September 1 2000 to keep his Presidential election promise. But the Taliban again put a spoke in the wheel by refusing to negotiate with the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul branding it a “puppet” of Washington.
It is in the interest of the Taliban to continue the war to annihilate the Kabul regime supported by the US. The Taliban already control 70% of Afghanistan, either directly or indirectly. With the US in a desperate mood to opt out of the costly and unending war, the Taliban think that they are within reach of absolute power. Even as they indulge in negotiations, they expect the current intra-Afghan conflicts to continue, which will enable them to attack the Afghan government forces with impunity.
The Taliban think that the US could be kept happy and at bay, by fighting the ISIS and Al-Qaeda on the latter’s behalf. Both the US and the Taliban hate these two terror groups. The Taliban, who are mainly Pashtun Sunnis, could also help subdue the Shia tribes supported by Shiite Iran, which is an adversary of the US.
The US has promised development aid to a Taliban-led post-peace government, but the Taliban are flush with funds from the cultivation and sale of poppy. Moreover, the Taliban are a not a rabble. Their administration, in areas they control, is quite sophisticated. And most importantly, unlike other groups, including the Afghan State, the Taliban are not alienated from the common Afghan.
Over a hundred thousand people have been killed in the 40-year war. Over 4,000 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) soldiers and civilian contractors, over 62,000 Afghan national security personnel, and over 31,000 civilians and even more of the Taliban, have perished in it.