The Unfortunate Afghan Peace Process
Deadlock, Mistrust and Predicaments
Mairaj ul Hamid Nasri
It seems that an already suffering Afghanistan is destined to suffer more from violence, regardless of numerous steps taken for restoration of peace in this war-torn country. Many factors, including mistrust between the negotiating parties, forces of status quo in Afghanistan, questionable role of some unseen forces, vested interests of the regional players and, the most important, non-accommodative behaviour of the Taliban and the Americans, have led the Afghan peace process into another deadlock.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghan reconciliation, was about to announce a deal with the Afghan Taliban when the unpredictable President Donald Trump cancelled his secret meeting with a delegation of Senior Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David merely over the killing of an American soldier in an attack claimed by the Taliban. If the level of confidence and trust is such low, it can be predicted easily that even after signing of the agreement, its life span would have been very short, rendering it meaningless in quest for getting the desired results. Although clashes between Taliban fighters and Americans in Afghanistan occur almost daily, and casualties are part of the fighting, yet scuttling the whole process over killing of a single American soldier brings many factors to the fore. Political advisors of President Trump may have advised him to adopt a strategy of cashing the death of the soldier as a key factor for his upcoming election campaign as a slogan of holding American blood superior over restoration of peace in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, Taliban have warned Mr Trump of seeing many American soldiers to be killed in the upcoming days until signing of the deal with them. Taliban believe that it is their offensive policy in the battlefield that has compelled the Americans to come to the negotiating table. The Taliban have held nine meetings with top American interlocutor, Zalmay Khalilzad, for the said deal but they did not stop attacks in Afghanistan for even a single day. They have opted for a ‘Carrot and Stick’ policy which has worked till this time. Moreover, Taliban have decided to improve their relations with other states – they sent a delegation to Moscow where it held a meeting with Russian representative for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov – which, in a sense, is developing pressure on the Americans to restore the peace process. In their approach, Taliban are clear that the deal is now a dire need of the Americans in view of the upcoming Presidential Election of 2020 in the United States, and leaving Afghanistan with a face-saving deal will be a dignified end of the game for President Trump.
Moreover, amidst the heated campaign for presidential elections in Afghanistan insurgency and insecurity have kept the Afghan people on their toes. Taliban have increased their control over many areas and the Afghan security forces are practically unable to counter their attacks. Ashraf Ghani government as well as opposition parties are worried over the perilous conditions, and are looking up for an all-out cooperation by Americans. Earlier, Ghani had remarked that Afghanistan’s security apparatus will collapse within six months, if the Americans stop their support to Afghanistan.
Taliban’s battlefield successes have also emboldened them and strengthened a perception among the international community as well as Americans that without Taliban’s support, controlling and running the state of affairs of Afghanistan is a dream that will remain unfulfilled.
The cancellation of peace talks and calling off the meeting with the Taliban by President Trump over the killing of one soldier has brought to naught the ten-month-long struggle of his own appointed representative Zalmay Khalilzad. No doubt, Khalilzad has done a lot for bringing Taliban to this level, which clearly indicates his devotion and commitment for restoration of peace in his native Afghanistan and helping America in ending the game with a dignified outcome. Khalilzad made several trips to the key states and stakeholders in Afghanistan and held marathon sessions with the Taliban interlocuters in Doha and other places during this period. Despite the said sacrifices, he has been subpoenaed by the Congressional committee asking him to present the reasons behind the failure of the peace process.
The Congress and officials in Trump administration must urge their president to be passionate, and adopt an accommodative attitude until the finalization and signing of the peace agreement. Seeking success through diplomatic channels for solving this saga requires sacrifice of many ideals and achievements from the American side. Donald Trump is seemingly unaware of diplomatic culture and, in the said issue, has turned towards his explicit attitude, which may prove disastrous for his country’s interests in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, regional players and key stakeholders in Afghanistan shall also use all channels to convince the Trump administration on utilizing this rare opportunity of ending the game with a peace deal. Pakistan, China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other states should use their diplomatic channels in this regard. It is high time the Americans and the Taliban to bridged the gap of mistrust, and moved ahead by shunning the noncooperative behaviours. Once the process gets stagnated, its restoration will need fresh energies and capital from both sides. Istanbul Process, Murree Peace Talks, Quadrilateral Coordination Group, Kabul Process, Moscow Process and many other unofficial endeavours are glaring examples, if Americans want to learn some lessons.
Last but not least, and perhaps the most important thing, is that both the parties, especially the United States, should gauge the investment and achievements in the ongoing conflict. It is apparent from the history of past two decades that United States has lost much more than gaining some tangible, long-lasting results in Afghanistan. Fighting for another two decades will also need negotiations to restore peace. Before turning up of the American public opinion against Afghan War – like in the case of Vietnam War – the Trump administration should restart negotiations with the Taliban for the sake of saving American interests in the region and promoting the culture of solving the issues through negotiations and dialogue.
The author is faculty member at department of Political Science,University of Malakand, Chakdara. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cancellation of Talks
On September 8, President Donald Trump posted on Twitter that (a) he had been scheduled to meet, within hours and on US soil, the leadership of the Afghan Taliban, and (b) he had “cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations” because the Taliban had, “in order to build false leverage”, admitted to a terrorist attack in Kabul in the middle of the “very important peace talks”.
What have the talks been about?
Since the talks began in October last year, the two sides’ discussions over a potential agreement have focused on four key issues: a Taliban guarantee that it will not allow foreign armed groups and fighters to use Afghanistan as a launchpad to conduct attacks outside the country; the complete withdrawal of US and NATO forces; an intra-Afghan dialogue; and a permanent ceasefire.
Currently, there are about 14,000 US troops and around 17,000 troops from 39 NATO allies and partner countries in Afghanistan in a non-combative role.
What does Trump’s decision mean?
In effect, President Trump has upended a nine-month pas de deux in Doha between Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban to close a deal for US troops to leave Afghanistan, in return for a commitment that the Taliban would not allow terrorist activities. A draft agreement was ready by the end of August. Khalilzad, who had flown to Kabul to brief President Ashraf Ghani — the Taliban had insisted that the Afghan government would not participate in the talks — on the details on August 31, said an agreement had been reached in principle, and Trump would have to greenlight the draft. He made it seem like this was a formality.
The immediate reason he gave was the September 5 suicide car bombing in central Kabul. The bombing, claimed by the Taliban, killed 12 people including a US serviceman and a Romanian soldier, and left 40 injured. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo offered the same justification. But, few are convinced that this was the real reason. There had been a steady increase in the number of Taliban attacks from January, when the talks began. Indeed, on September 2, while Khalilzad was in Kabul, the Taliban set off a tractor bomb near a heavily guarded compound for foreigners, killing 16 people and injuring 119 others.
What might be the other reasons?
- Pressure Tactics
Analysts believe that it is a psychological pressure from the US government on the Taliban to concede a number of incentives that the Afghan government is asking from the United States.
- Internal Rifts
According to most accounts, the agreement was extremely limited, exchanging the offer of a US troop withdrawal for a Taliban undertaking that attacks on the US would not be launched from Afghanistan. So, rifts emerged with the Trump administration.
According to Time magazine, Pompeo had refused to sign the “agreement in principle” because of his doubts about the deal and because the Taliban wanted to sign the agreement as the “Islamic Emirate of Taliban”, a recognition the secretary of state was not ready to bestow.
US national security adviser, John Bolton, and the vice-president, Mike Pence, opposed meeting Taliban representatives in Camp David, a few days before the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
How did the Taliban react?
The Taliban took half a day to respond, saying the abrupt decision hurt US credibility after they had “finalised” a deal, but said the US likely would return to negotiations. The two sides had still been talking on Saturday, they said — two days after Trump said he had “immediately” called off talks.
How did the Afghan government react?
Following Trump’s announcement, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said that “real peace” would only be possible if the Taliban stopped launching attacks and held direct talks with the government.
It’s unclear if the talks will resume because the Taliban won’t trust future deals they negotiate with the US if they think Trump might abruptly change course.