By Talimand Khan
February 14, 2019
The first step of negotiation to end any conflict for bringing peace is a ceasefire between the warring groups. But this simple wisdom of peace diplomacy and practice seem to be missing in the present peace talks between the Taliban and US. Though, President Trump, in his state of the union address, tried to assuage the impression, the US’ seemingly precipitous exit proves to the contrary.
Astonishingly violence and talks are going side by side in the Khalilzad Zalmay led peace process. So far, the Taliban have been adamant that they won’t accept the elected Parliament and government of Afghanistan, and the US has recognised the Taliban as the sole stakeholder.
It seems that the focus of the talks is the US exit from Afghanistan and not future arrangements inside Afghanistan. Evidently, the Taliban do not consider the US as a stakeholder to negotiate the future system in Afghanistan, but are only talking about the exit of an invading power. Thus a precipitous exit is not an unusual impression.
Though nobody will disagree with Zalmay’s remarks that, “The path to peace doesn’t often run in a straight line, like all sensitive talks, not everything is conducted in public,” one can assume by whatever transpired in public that it is neither a good omen for the US’ image as a global power nor for the future of the people of Afghanistan.
One hopes the present format of talks is ground levelling for an intra Afghan dialogue where the Taliban might consequently engage with all the stakeholders in Afghanistan. Parallel to that it is of foremost significance that the Taliban eventually agree not to be used as proxies by foreign powers. The absence of these fundamental elements may lead to the US exit but not peace in Afghanistan.
So far, Khalilzad Zalmay can publicly claim two successes: initiating and continuing direct negotiations with the Taliban – he credited Pakistan for bringing Taliban to the table – and second, the Taliban’s agreement not to allow Al Qaida and other international terrorists groups to use Afghan soil primarily against the US.
The second achievement of the Taliban agreeing not to harbour or allow international terrorists groups, including Al Qaida, to operate from Afghanistan particularly against the US, foretells of gloom. First, by putting such a demand before the Taliban, the US acknowledges that so far it could not achieve the primary objective of the War on Terror. It shows that the US fears Al Qaida and other terrorists groups are a reality, they might regroup and make a comeback in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
On the basis of evidence from the talks and the US approach to the Afghan conflict, the Taliban might be ultimately poised in the winner takes all situation through gradual strategy.
After the US exit, negotiated with the Taliban without taking the Afghan government on board, the Taliban will formally exert its sole stakeholder status. That status will provide it with the impetus to use force and violence to topple the existing system and its proponents by dubbing them as the residue of the occupying power, the US. In the presence of Afghan politicians at the recent Moscow conference, the Taliban vehemently rejected the constitution in its present form.
The question remains, how do they want to change it? Do they intend to amend it through the prescribed parliamentary procedure wherein they have no representation? Would they contest the forthcoming elections and later on seek amendment or would they prefer an interim arrangement before the elections? Apparently, public opinion is not in favour to propel the Taliban to power through elections. The Taliban without guns can hardly force themselves as a choice in elections, particularly in the urban centres. So far, they have not renounced their previous ideology and worldview, which are contrary to a modern constitutional democracy.
After toppling the Taliban’s repressive regime in 2001, the Afghan society and state institutions evolved. They have the capacity to absorb internal shocks and cope with indigenous social and political fault lines, but not strong enough to withstand the blatant external onslaught of the regional intervening powers in the guise of the Taliban.
Moreover, their long and costly war is not the feat of indigenous support or resources but the outcome of exogenous material, military support and protection. Afghanistan is a mere theatre and not a breeding and grooming ground for the Taliban. Thus, a conflict ridden, unstable and undemocratic Afghanistan suits the strategic objectives of the Taliban’s regional patrons. For them, Afghanistan was the most stable and peaceful under the Taliban regime from 1996-200. And, their underlying objective to recast it does not seem to have vanished in the last 17 years.
It is no longer a secret that before 9/11, the Taliban were not in a position to dislodge Al Qaida and other terrorists from Afghanistan or handover Osama Bin Laden to the US or other country because the de facto control was not in their hands. Christina Lamb, a well-known war correspondent covering Afghanistan since the Afghan War, detailed in her recent book on Afghanistan, ‘Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan To A More Dangerous World’, who were actually controlling Afghanistan during the Taliban reign from 1996 – 2001.
The circle in the US strategic and military experts thinks that terrorism is a tactic but not an enemy. It indicates that they fought the war with a wrong strategy wherein the utilisation of force did not match the strategic objectives or the objectives were not clearly defined. It reveals that in the17 years long war the US and its allies only chased the shadow, not the actual figure behind it.
In this scenario, if the US extracts a face saving agreement, including points other than the exit, who will be implementing the provisions of the treaty? The status of the Taliban as a proxy entity lacking legitimacy and decision making power can further make the situation precarious.
After wasting so much blood and treasure, there should be a method in this madness. Instead of reaching an agreement with the proxy for precipitous exit, if the US wants to avoid outright humiliation, it should strive to ensure the sovereignty of Afghanistan by guaranteeing non-interference by foreign, especially regional and neighbouring, states, through some international guarantee.
Leaving behind a sovereign, stable and democratic Afghanistan can be a civilised face saving and a matchless feat in the history of US diplomacy.
Talimand Khan is a freelance journalist currently contributing to @dailytimespak