Afghan peace: A case of cautious optimism
Posted by Javed Iqbal
The recent opening of the Doha office for initiating US-Afghan Taliban talks is an auspicious beginning insofar as it is the first formal attempt after many years of false starts. Yet it calls for cautious optimism where many roadblocks and snags exist. Preparations for the talks had started about 18 months ago but were stopped due to misgivings expressed by Afghan Taliban leadership.
Now it seems that a confluence of factors from all parties have kicked in a sense of urgency to re-start dialogue and negotiations. After all, all conflicts have to terminate by negotiating at the table. Doha, Qatar is a neutral place, relatively far from the din and roar of fighting in Afghanistan. As an affluent country of 1.6 million it has taken a pro-active role in the region. Al-Jazeera may give them a sympathetic coverage. Also, prospects of some economic largesse may be awaiting, should the Taliban come to some agreement after talking. US as the major player, after having spent 12 years in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban forces, is now keen to militarily withdraw and hand over power to a political dispensation, which they feel should include the Afghan Taliban.
The latter are considered as a reality that are militarily significant force but cannot possibly dominate the Afghan scene. More importantly, the US needs a safe exit by the end of 2014 and transfer power to Afghan forces while keeping residual forces behind. An agreement with Afghanistan, issue of amnesty for left over military soldiers and others need to be sorted out. A Survey by Asia Foundation says that nearly 30 per cent Afghans tend to sympathize with Taliban who are Pushtoons— nearly 40 per cent of the Afghan population.
All US presidents during their second terms start worrying about their legacy in history. President Obama’s first election promise was about bringing US troops back home from Afghanistan and thereby terminating the ongoing conflict.
As far as Afghan Taliban are concerned, they pride themselves as winners in their 12 year long resistance by ‘routing’ the US as a superpower just as they did with the then Soviet Union. They are tough negotiators and are ideologically driven and worked on the principle that their enemies [US] had watches but we [Taliban] had all the time. But now, time is also essential and running out for them as they would desire a political arrangement in post 2014 scenario. Now they see hope of getting power on their ethnic identity.
Doha, Qatar, as centre for talks, is meant to create a sense of legitimacy for them; they tried to make the place look like an ‘embassy’ with the flag and plaque of ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.’ But it drew strong disapproval from the Karzai government who termed it as an attempt to give an impression of ‘government in exile.’ Also, this was seen as a ‘propaganda coup’ to gain international recognition. Moreover, Karzai government thought that these talks should have been held by the US and his government in Afghanistan.
Both the US and Qatar were embarrassed and the Taliban retreated somewhat. The Taliban, on the other hand, think that Karzai government is a surrogate leader where the real power to negotiate resides with the US. The Taliban, at least for the time being, are promising that they will respect Afghan Constitution, enter into negotiations with Northern alliance, delink them from Al-Qaeda, help form a consensus government and not attack the US soil. Perhaps they are keen to free their captives from the Guantanamo Bay in exchange for an incarcerated US soldier.
The US still has 65,000 troops and military equipment in Afghanistan that needs to be evacuated by the end of December 2014.
The Karzai government suspects that it has been shortchanged and not kept in the loop. And, that Karzai is the only person who can deal with the ‘rogue Taliban.’ Perhaps Karzai’s insecurities stem from the forthcoming presidential elections next year. In a bid to retain power he is tempted to amend the Afghan Constitution or promote another of his relation. That is why he has visited India two times in the last six months to garner Indian support. Secretary John Kerry has also elicited Indian support for strengthening the electoral system in Afghanistan in forthcoming elections.
Albeit a positive step, the first time public announcement of holding US-Taliban talks many vexing issues need to be resolved. An editorial in The News aptly remarked: “Karzai is muddling, the Taliban are frightening and US is vexing and Pakistan is opaque.”Pakistan’s role as a facilitator is significant. It wants stability in Afghanistan which it thinks can come about by acceding fair share to the Pushtoons. At the same time, it is apprehensive of Taliban victory and domination in post-2014 Afghanistan as this could multiply security problems for Pakistan. Their ethnic counterparts in Pakistan, the TTP, are already a headache and would get emboldened with Afghan Taliban’s victory in their country.
Pakistan, on its part, has been trying to consort with Northern Alliance and wants a stable Afghanistan with legitimate Pushtoon representation. Contrary to previous stand, it does not want an overwhelming Taliban presence as this might invite counter intervention from India. This could create a two- front threatening situation for Pakistan from east and west — a strategic nightmare. Pakistan therefore remains averse to any type of security related Indian intervention. While talks are in the offing fighting has not stopped and Taliban continue to attack different targets in the country. There is no ceasefire as yet. The Taliban think that talks are a ploy to get the American safely evacuated from Afghanistan.
The TTP has welcomed the Doha process, as it considers itself as a wing of the Afghan Taliban and obeying Mullah Omer’s orders. The Taliban hold that it is the ‘only political track.’Likewise, Iran and Russia are not happy at this arrangement and are quite wary. India wants an ‘Afghan owned’ and ‘Afghan driven’ arrangement in Afghanistan Iran has not been given importance it also needs to be brought in. Peace talks face a host of problems in future. Like other protracted conflicts many issues need to be resolved before peace can be built. Peace building is a long haul and involves years of work and patience.
The region around Afghanistan is in transition, Pakistan and Iran held elections in 2013, Afghanistan is going to have them in 2014 and so would India the same year. Transitions are always unsettling but it depends upon international community how they remain engaged with Afghanistan. Future developments in Pakistan also will have an impact.
Sceptics charge that Taliban are only playing for time through the smokescreen of talks, that their radical ideology brooks no political accommodation, and that their past is full of broken promises and deceptions. Notwithstanding this, this is also an opportunity for them to share power or face continued isolation. The outlook can be positive provided the players in Afghanistan and region act in a spirit of harmony; but if power politics again takes over then prospects of peace in Afghanistan will remain elusive.
Afghanistan is the only country in the world that has suffered two superpower occupations and destructions. The people are killed and traumatized in millions. Its tribal system and institutions are badly mauled with adverse impact in FATA. Time moves on, monarchy cannot be restored, tribal old institutions cannot be revived in full but healthy adjustments can be made. However, a philosophy of live and let live can bring peace, economic development. Afghanistan is uniquely placed to act as transit zone— linking with the outside world.
As a country blessed with resources the Afghan nation possesses immense potential for growth and development. The crying need is to forge political reconciliation at home at the earliest. Difficult though it may seem, but in case it is realized and optimized it could prove all doomsayers wrong who foresee a post-2014 Afghanistan as a bleak, bleeding and broken country.
The Writer is an Adviser, Centre for Policy Studies, COMSATS, Islamabad.
(Dr. Maqsudul Hasan Nuri)