Afghan Peace: A Process of Contradiction
The concept of peace talks at some point in time is imminent in every conflict discourse. However, in the case of Afghanistan, it is intrinsically contradictory in nature. Primarily for two reasons– inconsistency in what the parties in conflict say and how they act, as well as the contradiction in the set of objectives and vision for peace of both the Taliban and the Afghan Government. Conflict in Afghanistan has hardly ever witnessed two powerful yet contrasting phenomena operating together, as it has in 2018. The escalation in the violence cycle is going along hand in hand with the pursuit for peace. Similar several desperate quests for peace were made by the former President Hamid Karzai in the past when it had asked various warring factions including the Taliban to make a truce and join the Government. It had irked the US and had received a cold response from the international community. In 2018, President Ashraf Ghani has the international community, including the US backing. This makes the current peace overtures by the Afghan Government truly significant.
Similarly, never had the country witnessed a remarkable policy volte-face by the US and the Taliban as it has in the last few months. Assess the statement by the US President Trump at lunch with members of the United Nations Security Council on 29 January 2018, “I don’t see any talking taking place [with Taliban]. I don’t think we’re prepared to talk right now. It’s a whole different fight over there [Afghanistan][i].” Contrary to the Trump’s initial standing on the Taliban issue, a section of the US policy makers were deliberating on the issue of peace process in Afghanistan, which finally was articulated, supposedly not without the clearance from White House, by the former top US commander General John Nicholson and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a surprise visit to Afghanistan. By the second half of the year, the US officials for all intents and purposes were pushing for a peace deal with the Taliban.
Within a month of the Trump’s speech to the members of the United Nations Security Council on 29 January 2018, the Taliban had written a letter addressing the people of the US in which it prescribed ‘peaceful dialogue’ as the only way ahead on the Afghan issue[ii]; even though it was straining every nerve to inflict maximum casualties on the Foreign and Afghan Forces. The figures released by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reflect the dichotomy between what the Taliban prescribed and what it has been doing on the ground. A total of 1,692 fatalities were recorded during the first six months of 2018 – the most recorded in the period over the last decade.[iii] In the same letter, it described Government of Ashraf Ghani as “a band of usurpers, looters, mafia warlords, and drug-dealers.”[iv]In the past it had time and again held its stand against any peace talks with the Afghan Government, which it considers as ‘illegitimate,’ and not worthy of engagement. Eventually, it had to renounce its traditional stand when the Ghani Government came up with its first unilateral unconditional ceasefire in June. By accepting the three day Eid ceasefire, it apparently gave legitimacy to the same Government it had fought tooth and nail. However, by rejecting the ceasefire announced in August, it hinted of going back its initial stand.
In April, Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid had reiterated its traditional demand of the withdrawal of the U.S.-led foreign troops before any conflict resolution talks are initiated.[v]The issue of US military bases and the release of the Taliban prisoners were two critical issues discussed during the latest round of talks between the US and the Taliban officials in the United Arab Emirates on 15 September 2018.[vi]Although the Taliban has amended its stand on the issue of withdrawal of the international forces- initially as a precondition to the peace talks to later as one of the elements of deliberation; it nonetheless wants the foreign forces to be out of Afghanistan before they can sit on the table; whereas the US has not hinted any intention to leave Afghanistan, at least officially. In fact, the US has insisted on continuing with the two military bases, Bagram and Shorabak. The Taliban are not willing to accept it.[vii]
India’s Renewed Stand on Peace and Stability
During the recently concluded Dr. Mohammad Ashraf Ghani visit to India on September 19, 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated India’s support to an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace and reconciliation process[viii]. In the last few years, it has pushed for a reconciliation process that is based on political negotiation rather than military solution. India’s new approach evinces an element of engagement with the Taliban[ix], though it itself has avoided any diplomatic engagement with the group. India has at the same time made it clear that the success of the policy is contingent upon aborting any kind of external influence on the process, clearly alluding to Pakistan’s interference. India no more appears to be averse to selective engagement strategy with the Taliban, as long as the terms for engagement are not dictated by Pakistan or subversive forces within the group. It, through its new conciliatory strategy, has also been able to convey its renewed water-downed outlook towards the Taliban, considering the fact that India had always held reservations about the political settlement with Taliban[x]. It has equally been reciprocated by the Taliban which has moderated their stand on India and no more regard it as their enemy.[xi] Recently, in an interview with an Indian journalist, Zabiullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesperson hinted at having good relations with India.[xii] Therefore, India through its Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled policy has been able to bring nuanced context to the process without placating or provoking any stakeholders, which in long term is going to be beneficial for its interests in Afghanistan even if the process fails. However, the success of the process will depend on how the major stakeholders act to cross the first hurdle of reaching a consensus on the issue of foreign forces in Afghanistan.
Window for Peace amidst Contradiction
For all practical purposes, the question of withdrawal of the foreign forces is an unpalatable idea for the international community and basically is out of the question in the near future due to the threat perception and the imminent security challenges arising from Afghanistan[xiii]. President Ashraf Ghani has clearly stated that the Afghan National Army will not last more than six months without US support and the Afghan Government will also collapse if the US withdraws from Afghanistan.[xiv] The Afghan Government understands that the withdrawal of the international forces will unveil any pretension of being moderate by the Taliban. It, on the other hand, will also expose the faultiness within the democratic institutions as well as the armed forces in the country, which is heavily dependent on international aid and loans. The negotiability of this factor could be the first and the major bottleneck in the perceived peace talks.
The final question remains is there any precondition to peace initiative like taking the edge off the violence. The answer to it is a comprehensive No, as both sides have escalated assaults on each other. Parties in conflict know that any breakthrough in the current security impasse in Afghanistan would be decided by the success on the ground that in turn will reflect on the negotiation table. The incompatibility of positions, mutually exclusive views could be ironed out in favour of those who will hold an upper hand in the battlefield. At the moment, the Taliban has the upper hand, as Political Scientist Seth Jones stated “… I don’t see the Taliban viewing itself as losing, or even potentially, views the situation as a stalemate right now…. I think they believe they are winning. This means they are a lot less desperate for a settlement now than the Afghan Government is, or the U.S. is.”[xv] Taliban’s success on the battlefield will naturally impact the process on the negotiation table, which in turn might defeat the whole peace process.
[i]“Remarks by President Trump at Lunch with Members of the United Nations Security Council.”The White House. Accessed September 20, 2018 https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-lunch-members-united-nations-security-council/
[ii] “Taliban Addresses “the American People” in Rambling Letter.” CBS News. February 14, 2018. Accessed September 20, 2018.https://www.cbsnews.com/news/rambling-taliban-letter-addresses-the-american-people/.
[iv] Alexander, Harriet. “Taliban Publishes Open Letter to Americans.” The Telegraph. February 14, 2018. Accessed September 20, 2018.https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/02/14/taliban-publish-open-letter-americans/
[v]Gul, Ayaz. “Afghan Taliban Declines to Support Moscow-Backed Peace Talks.” VOA. April 13, 2017. Accessed September 20, 2018 https://www.voanews.com/a/afghan-taliban-declines-to-support-moscow-backed-peace-talks/3808505.html
[vi] Taliban Call for Closure of US Bases, Prisoner Release,” The Dawn, September 17, 2018, , accessed September 17, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1433427/taliban-call-for-closure-of-us-bases-prisoner-release
[vii]“US Military Ramping Back up in Afghanistan with Little Scrutiny.” New York Post, New York Post, 10 Mar. 2018, Accessed on April 28, 2018 from https://nypost.com/2018/03/10/us-military-ramping-back-up-in-afghanistan-with-little-scrutiny/
[viii] “Visit of President of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to India (September 19, 2018).” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. September 19, 2018. Accessed October 03, 2018. https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/30410/visit of president of islamic republic of afghanistan to indiaseptember 19 2018.
[ix] “Foreign Secretary’s Visit to Afghanistan.” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. Accessed October 04, 2018. https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/29523/foreign+secretarys+visit+to+afghanistan
[x] “‘Krishna Misquoted, No Change in Afghan Policy’.” Https://www.hindustantimes.com/. September 24, 2009. Accessed October 04, 2018. https://www.hindustantimes.com/delhi-news/krishna-misquoted-no-change-in-afghan-policy/story-gzrWdekTQo1gZyD0huvTUL.html.
[xi] “Ahmed Rashid: Afghan Taliban Don’t See India as Their Enemy.” Asia Society.Accessed October 03, 2018.https://asiasociety.org/new-york/ahmed-rashid-afghan-taliban-dont-see-india-their-enemy.
[xii] Dixit, Rekha. “Taliban Wants Good Relations with India.” Theweek.in. Accessed October 03, 2018.https://www.theweek.in/theweek/cover/taliban-wants-good-relations-with-India.html.
[xiii]Copp, Tara. “DoD: Afghanistan Operations Could Hit 22 Years ― but Don’t Call It a Permanent Presence.” Military Times. August 28, 2018. Accessed September 20, 2018.https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2018/08/28/dod-afghanistan-operations-could-hit-22-years-but-dont-call-it-a-permanent-presence/
[xv]Copp, Tara. “Trump Strategy Is Working, Departing General in Afghanistan Says.” Military Times. August 22, 2018. Accessed September 20, 2018.https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2018/08/22/trump-strategy-is-working-departing-general-in-afghanistan-says/.