(MENAFN - Daily Outlook Afghanistan) US-Taliban Talks
In the complexitythat has arisen from decades of conflict, with the multitude of actors aligningthemselves on ethnic lines and the lack of national Afghan unity, reaching aconsensus is proving to be nearly impossible. However, it seems that the futureof Afghanistan will be played out by two main internal actors; the Taliban andthe Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani, an independent politician. And yet,there is little to no interaction between the Taliban and the government as theTaliban does not recognize the government as a legitimate entity, and thegovernment does not appreciate the Taliban's political momentum with otherStates. By engaging in talks with foreign governments and Afghan elites, theTaliban is gaining political credibility that is undermining Ghani'sgovernment.
Taliban leaders haveattended several rounds of talks with the US in Doha, Qatar. While both sidesseem eager to end this war of 18 years, there is one major point of discordwhich is the timeframe of US troops withdrawal. The Trump administration iswilling to start withdrawing troops, as long as the Taliban holds up to itsside of the bargain which is to prevent jihadist organizations from operatingin the country. The US has also made demands that the Taliban start a dialoguewith the Afghan government before they withdraw their troops, something whichthe Taliban is reluctant to do while only hinting at a potential politicaldiscussion with the Afghan government once the US leaves.
If Donald Trump'seagerness to withdraw from Afghanistan precipitates a rash deal with theTaliban, with no sustainable plan for the country and no guarantee that theTaliban will hold up to its end of the bargain, the results could bedisastrous. The US presence, as resented as it is by Afghans, does maintain aform of control over the regional status of Afghanistan. Should the US leaveAfghanistan in the state that it is today, the country would be up for grabs asregional powers and internal actors would attempt to defend their strategic andregional interests in the country. Afghanistan's immediate neighbours wouldgain from reconstructing Afghanistan, and lose if another conflict were toerupt from lack of internal political stability. Some of the countries,especially Pakistan and Iran, alongside their dubious role, have also had tomanage the spillovers of Afghan wars in the past, in terms of mass refugeeinflux and the proliferation of terrorist groups aligning themselves on ethniclines, which do not stop at the established borders. Pashtuns are present inAfghanistan and Pakistan, while Baloch are present in Iran, Afghanistan andPakistan. If Afghan political powers are unable to suppress terrorist andinsurgent groups following the withdrawal of US troops, these groups could drawon ethnic oriented discourses to rally citizens, and Afghan refugees, inneighbouring countries to join their cause, as it has been done in the past.
Afghan Government sidelined
Third party Statesthat are engaged in the peace talks hold the responsibility to include theAfghan government, as leaving it out is an impediment to the peace process.Aside from meeting US envoys in Doha, the Taliban also met with prominentAfghan politicians – including the former president Hamid Karzai – in Moscow inFebruary. The Kremlin was not directly involved in organizing the talks, sincethis was done by the Afghan diaspora in Russia, yet the country did play a rolein facilitating logistics. The talks were held at the President Hotel, owned bythe Kremlin, and the ten-member Taliban delegation was authorized to enter thecountry, despite the Taliban being a designated terrorist organization by theRussian government since 2003. Once again, the legitimate, democraticallyelected and internationally recognized government was sidelined, meaning thatthe agreements that may arise from discussions at the table in Moscow cannot beimplemented, unless they are brought to Ghani's government.
The position of theAfghan government regarding the peace process is that it should be'Afghan-owned, Afghan-led. Hence, as the US establishes more political talkswith the Taliban, while it continues to conduct military operations against itin Taliban occupied territory, Kabul sees this as a betrayal on behalf of theirstrategic ally, as the US' alienation from the Afghan government contributes tothe erosion of Ghani's political presence and undermines his government'slegitimacy.
However, Ghanirefuses to let his government be pushed aside. And yet, with security andeconomic conditions having worsened since Ghani's election, the Afghanpresident and his government are losing ground with the Afghan population andinternational actors. With the – twice postponed – presidential electionscoming up in September this year, if Ghani hopes to be re-elected, he needs tobe able to engage in the US-Taliban talks. As direct discussion with theTaliban is a route supported by other nations such as Russia and China, onewould argue that it makes little sense for the Afghan government to try anddiverge from this path. However, by engaging directly with the Taliban, or atleast accommodating them, third party States have now given the Taliban enoughconfidence in their political momentum, which only reinforces their adamantrefusal to accept Ghani's government as a legitimate actor. While the attemptsby the US and other international powers to sit across the table with theTaliban in search of the long-elusive peace in Afghanistan, are welcomedevelopments, the absence of insistence that the terrorist outfit eschewviolence prior to ushering it onto the table does raise serious concerns, andtherefore there should be efforts to bring the Afghan government to thenegotiating table. While everyone demands a slice of the Afghan cake, Ghani'sgovernment feeds on crumbs and Afghan civilians are once again left to starve.
The glimmer of hopefor the Afghan peace process has caught the attention of other regional actors.As mentioned above, these actors stand to gain from a stable Afghanistan, butonly if the government in charge is sympathetic to their interests. One of theregional scenarios that should be taken into account during this peace processis the fact that countries such as Pakistan, China, India, Iran and Russia willcompete for influence in Afghanistan.
In addition,Pakistan's close ties with the Taliban cannot be neglected. Hypotheticallyspeaking, if the Taliban was to reach an agreement with the Ghani's government,and potentially become a legitimate political party, where would the Talibanfighters go? Would there be a place for them in the Afghan Army or securityforces? Could they be reintegrated into society after all the horrors they havecommitted? Or would they simply be recruited by terrorist organizations basedin Pakistan in order to continue Pakistan's proxy war in Indian AdministeredJammu & Kashmir as was done with former Mujahideen fighters at the end ofthe 80s when the Soviets left? There remains a major concern of the risk ofthousands of experienced fighters suddenly being unemployed and seeking to joinother terrorist factions, moving east into Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir, west into the Middle East and north into Central Asia.
Aside from themilitary ties between Pakistan and the Taliban, there are economic routes atstake. In theory, Pakistan could provide Afghanistan with access to the Indianmarket, as Afghanistan provides Pakistan with an access to the Central Asianmarket. Yet in order to come to an economic agreement, the two governments haveto be on good terms, which is not always the case as the neighbours share astrained relationship due to Pakistan's sponsorship of the Taliban.
As for India, itsaim is to limit the influence of Pakistan in Afghanistan, as it has preachedthat the peace process must be 'Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, but New Delhiremains weary of the influence the Pakistani military establishment holds overthe Taliban and other jihadist groups. India also has economic interests inAfghanistan as it provides the country with an access to Central Asian energyreserves, and the Indian government has been funding aid and infrastructuredevelopments in the country. India's position is that it advocates for a strongcentral government, which would be able to counter Pakistani influence. NewDelhi has also expressed discontent vis-à-vis the US-Taliban talks, agreeingwith the Afghan government's stance that this undermines the position of thelegitimate government in Kabul.
China is keeping aneye on the situation as well as one of its main concerns is the risk of Islamicextremism spilling over into its Muslim majority Xinjiang province whereBeijing has been preoccupied in brutally crushing dissent among the Uyghurpopulation. Furthermore, China's global economic plan known as the Belt andRoad Initiative requires stable Central- and South Asian regions. So far,Beijing has agreed that the US must withdraw its troops, and the country hasalso expressed the sentiment that the peace process must be inclusive andAfghan-led. Beijing is well aware that a rapid pull out of American troopscould precipitate yet another civil war in Afghanistan which would lead toconcerns regarding the stability of South Asia, especially when the future ofits Belt and Road Initiative is at stake. China's solution to this is to pushforward its objectives at diplomatic platforms such as its own ShanghaiCooperation Organisation.
RebuildingAfghanistan will require an unprecedented amount of cooperation, from amultitude of actors which are not known for their negotiation abilities. A rashpeace deal, seen as the complete removal of foreign presence without atransition plan, must not be promulgated by the US and the Taliban, since suchprecipitative actions could again lead to internal conflict.
Nevertheless, it isof paramount importance that foreign actors do not impose their interpretationof a solution on the country; Afghans must decide what type of governance worksbest for them. Any government set in place must be decided for by all partiesto the conflict as the act of marginalizing one could be the catalyst thatcould precede another civil war.
The reconstructionof the Afghan State should not come at the detriment of its population. Afghancivilians have held the status of collateral damage for 40 years; in a regionwhere an abundancy of insurgent and terrorist groups draw on the misery ofcivilians, the common people's pain and justifiable grievances must beaddressed to truly commence the peace process and recovery of the country.