Peace in Afghanistan remains a distant dream
The Taliban spokesman in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, announced last week that the US and the Taliban were close to a peace agreement and that only operational details remained to be finalised. The head of the US delegation, Zalmay Khalilzad, arrived in Kabul on Sunday to seek the backing of President Ashraf Ghani. Once the Kabul government is on board, the agreement will be signed in Doha before representatives from several governments.
The agreement provides for the phased withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan over the next 15-18 months; a commitment by the Taliban not to provide space and sanctuary to extremist groups in territory controlled by it; implementation of a cease-fire; and a dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government to finalise a political setup that would accommodate the Taliban in the country’s divided and contentious political order.
The intra-Afghan dialogue is expected to take place in Oslo a few weeks after the agreement is signed. This will set the stage for national elections on Sept. 28.
The US-Taliban agreement marks the end of the US military intervention in Afghanistan from October 2001, when it attacked the Taliban “emirate” in response to the 9/11 assaults on the American homeland. Though the Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces were decimated, and their top leaders fled to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas for sanctuary, the US and other coalition forces stayed on in the country to try to shape a new liberal and democratic order.
This ambitious agenda was never realized. The Taliban returned to Afghanistan from 2004 onwards and soon controlled large swaths of territory, with huge financial resources from a boost in poppy production. President Obama, recognising the futility of the US venture, began the withdrawal of US forces, bringing their numbers down from 100,000 in 2010 to 8,400 in January 2017. Trump increased this number by 4,000 in 2017.
The military intervention has been a sustained disaster: US forces suffered over 2,300 dead and over 20,000 wounded, while the Afghans have suffered 20,000 dead every year. This year the government and its US allies have caused more Afghan civilian deaths than the Taliban and other militants: Up to the end of July, they had killed over 700 civilians as against 500 killed by the Taliban and other militants.
Though the Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces were decimated, and their top leaders fled to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas for sanctuary, the US and other coalition forces stayed on in the country to try to shape a new liberal and democratic order.
The peace process has been controversial. Though the US and the Taliban are now the closest to peace since 2001, critics have pointed out that Trump has been motivated mainly to getting his soldiers home quickly so that he can reap benefits in the election next year. This peremptory withdrawal, they believe, will leave the country’s nascent democracy and human rights achievements at the mercy of the Taliban, who are expected to repeat the atrocities associated with their “emirate” in the 1990s.
There are also concerns that, with the US out of the military equation, the Taliban will ride roughshod over the democratic process, show little regard for participation in governance, and will seek to re-shape the country based on their hidebound beliefs and norms.
There could be other problems. The Taliban are not a monolithic body, but a loose association of diverse groups, with ambitious leaders and differing ideologies. They include hardliners who might not accept the moderate line being espoused at the Doha discussions.
The Taliban expert Antonio Giustozzi has suggested that extremists from the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Haqqani network could link up with hardliners from the Afghan Taliban and join the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), which has expanded from a few dozen fighters in 2014 to about 2,500-4,000 militants at present.
Neither the Taliban nor the ISK have reduced their violence. While the Taliban continue their regular attacks on government forces and inflict heavy casualties, an ISK suicide bomber attacked a 1000-strong wedding party in Kabul on Aug. 17, killing over 60 guests and wounding about 200. Jason Burke has explained that, as the Taliban succumbs to moderation and compromise, the ISK is seeking to project itself as the main opposition force in the country and wants a territorial enclave for its revived “caliphate.”
The Afghan peace process is also expected to aggravate rivalry between India and Pakistan, already at loggerheads because of India’s recent initiatives in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan has made it clear that it will not relinquish space in Afghanistan. It has acquired this influence by consistently backing the Taliban, which in the early 1990s it had organized, indoctrinated, armed, trained and supported in battle, culminating in the realisation of the “emirate.”
India has traditionally viewed the Taliban as an extremist entity and believes that its presence in Afghanistan undermines the democratic Kabul government and jeopardizes the country’s liberal and pluralistic society.
This could change: From both Indian and Taliban sources there are indications that engagement between them is likely. Afghan diplomats and a Taliban spokesman have firmly asked Pakistan not to link the recent developments in Kashmir with the Afghan situation.
Thus, amid these contentions, even if the US finalizes the agreement with the Taliban, the prospect of peace in the country remains remote.
- Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.
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