The State of Play in Intra-Afghan Peace Talks

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by Muhammad Mahmood       28 September 2020

The US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban held peace talks on Saturday, September 12 in Qatar’s capital Doha.

This was the first-ever face-to-face meeting between them after nearly 20 years of conflict that began with the invasion and military occupation of Afghanistan by the US. In fact, the conflict has been going on in Afghanistan for the last 40 years since the Soviet invasion in December 1979 which ended in February 1989. But the conflict continued among warring Afghan groups.

The current conflict between the US-installed Afghan government, the occupying forces of the US, and its allies started in 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan on the pretext of punishing the Taliban, the host of Osama Bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of 9/11.

After 20 years of protracted war and numerous casualties on all sides and near destruction of Afghanistan Americans have decided to call it a day and entered into peace talks for a “peace deal’’ that the US signed with the Taliban in February this year in the same venue, the Qatari capital where this phase of peace talks has been held a few days ago where an Agreement has been reached with the Taliban to give shape to the promise the US President Donald Trump made in 2016,  to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan.

The US-Taliban accord was expected to start in March this year but had to be delayed by six months due to disagreement between the US-backed government in Kabul and the Taliban.  However, the US has since ramped up pressure on its own backed regime in Afghanistan to start negotiations with the Taliban and work out the future political landscape of Afghanistan as soon as possible so that the US can start withdrawing its troops from the country. This is the US official line of argument and the issue has gained urgency as President Trump faces an election in November this year.

The mess

However, a peace deal between the Taliban and the rest is anything but a bed of roses. There are continuing problems on both sides – the US-backed Kabul government remains fractured over a disputed presidential election held last September, though a power-sharing arrangement of a sort has been worked out between Ghani, the President, and Abdullah Abdullah who has been bestowed with the title as Chief Executive.  In this capacity, Abdullah Abdullah heads the High Council for National Reconciliation which is now empowered to undertake the peace talks.

Also, many within the ranks of Taliban fighters are opposed peace talks as they believe that they could win militarily as nearly half the country is effectively under their control. The US agency, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction also has expressed fear that Taliban fighters returning to their homes could be targeted by corrupt officials or threatened by authorities. This is what happened in the wake of the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001.

At the same time, the US-backed government in Kabul is deeply mired in corruption and as a result, has become almost dysfunctional and would collapse if the US does not provide enough military support to keep it in power.  There is hardly any rule of law and the country is largely run by the militias loyal to the Kabul government and the allied warlords. The same US agency, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction in its report of 2019 described the country as a “failed state”.

Issues that separate the two sides are many and mistrust is deep. Looming over all specific issues in the future governance model for Afghanistan. There are also spoilers not only within the country but also outside including within the US itself.  Recognising the reality, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described at the opening ceremony, the direct formal peace talks, “a truly momentous occasion”. He further cautioned that the way forward would “require hard work and sacrifice’’. In response Taliban Chief Negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in his brief remark called for an Afghanistan “where everyone lives in peace and harmony and no one feels any discrimination”.

Taliban, the nemesis turned a peace partner

The Taliban now speaks from a position of strength as it now controls half of Afghanistan. Therefore, the Taliban now believes as they enter into these peace talks with a strong position, they hold the card to ‘peace’. Furthermore, unlike the Kabul regime which is a fractured entity they are a united force. Moreover, the Taliban is also of the view that they have effectively and strategically defeated the US Army and the US has no option but to leave Afghanistan sooner than later, leaving the Taliban the strongest of all parties to take over the country and thus Taliban are in no great rush to compromise.

Since its first meeting with US officials 10 years ago, the Taliban agenda has remained consistent – complete withdrawal of US forces and a substantial role in the Afghan government and this is mainly because the Taliban is aware complete withdrawal of an occupying force is the only guarantee of total freedom. Taliban have learned it from history – indeed, recent history suggests that US troops never really leave a country once occupied through wars such as in Germany and Japan after World War II and more recently, Iraq for example. Contemporary history informs us that unless the US is not decisively defeated in a military engagement as happened in Vietnam, its troops have the habit of not leaving the occupied country completely even after the war is over. This is simply because the military-industrial complex in the US enormously profits from all wars including proxy wars that the US engineers and conducts around the world. Any US troop withdrawals from anywhere in the world will result in military spending cuts and the gravy train will stop for both the military-industrial complex and other related interest groups. Therefore, they need the Taliban type or the Islamic “terrorists” types of perpetual enemy to justify wars to keep the industrial/military complex going.

Taliban’s second objective is to rule the country on its own. Indeed, if the Taliban succeeds in achieving its first objective – complete withdrawal of US troops – the second objective would be a cakewalk.

Regional players and India’s predicaments

For years Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China have had their doubts America’s intentions – they doubted whether the US genuinely seeks peace or that in the name of ‘peace’ its intention is to establish a permanent foothold in Afghanistan, thereby in the region to contain them. Obviously, these fears have since led to various forms of hedging behaviour including developing closer ties with the Taliban the obvious successor to the US-backed puppet Ghani government in Afghanistan.

Another key player, India is also a crucial factor in the continuing Afghan conflict. The forty years of conflict in Afghanistan started with the Soviet installed government in Afghanistan at the very end of 1979 which India, the only South Asian country, recognised. By doing so India not only directly contributed to giving legitimacy to a foreign installed government in Afghanistan but also created an environment for the US to sponsor, train, finance, arm, and provide logistical support to extreme Islamic radical forces to fight against Soviet troops in the country. In pursuance of its hegemonic agenda the US deliberately turned a Soviet-backed non-monarchist secular nationalist government which was backed by the Soviet occupation into a faith-based religious war and the consequences of that persist till today.

In the new scenario which has eventuated since 2001, where Soviet hegemony has been replaced with the US, India quickly switched its role and sided with the US in the latter’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Since then India has remained an active strategic partner of the US in backing the country’s US-backed government. In effect, India has been trying to eke out the role of a Deputy Sheriff of the US in Afghanistan and more precisely, in the wider Central Asian region. More disturbingly, India has adopted a policy preference for no-deal with the Taliban causing the conflict to continue and deepen. To further complicate the situation India has been involved in fomenting inter-ethnic rivalry to further destabilisation of the country.

However, to what extent India is economically capable of undertaking these tasks is uncertain. There is no doubt India does harbour the ambition to assume the position of a big brother in the region but whether it has the required economic capacity – home to 24 percent of global poor and in terms of wealth ranking, ranks 142 out of 189 countries, below Sri Lanka and Bhutan – is a different question.  While it is true that India is the 5th largest economy in the world on the GDP basis, according to the World Hunger Index India it ranks 102 out of 117 countries putting India much below its smaller neighbours like Bangladesh (88), Nepal (73) and Sri Lanka (66) and  732 million people in India have no access to a toilet. These do not position India well to engage in a protracted conflict with anyone let alone the Taliban who has the habit of blooding the world’s mightiest.

India knows this and at the invitation of the Qatari government, it did attend the recent Doha Intra-Afghan Peace Talks and sent a high-level delegation to it. Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar also addressed the conference virtually. In view of what used to be India’s “no deal with Taliban’’ policy, such a U-turn is remarkable and given that Pakistan, a long-term ally of the Taliban is at a more advantageous position than India, makes it an interesting scenario. In effect, India has been exposed as a loser in the Afghanistan proxy war and its ability to work as a spoiler against China and in Kashmir has also become questionable. Thus India enters the peace-talk with a relatively weaker position.

Despite these challenges, Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar did put up a brave face and in the true tradition of Indian diplomacy where rhetoric takes precedence over reality, starting with a very lofty statement, saying, “The friendship of our people is a testimony to our history with Afghanistan”.

But that testimony to the history remains a very problematic one, for the present Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu supremacist political party now in power in New Delhi which Mr. Jaishankar represents, whose policies are clearly anti-Muslim, something that is unlikely to warm the hearts of the Taliban who are fanatic Muslims have put then on a wrong footing already. Moreover, the fact that Mr. Modi and his government consistently and quite loudly proclaim 700 years of Turco-Afghan “Muslim rule” rule of India a period of “national humiliation” is no less a thorn, stuck between them and the Taliban.

Given his country’s record of violence against its Muslim population and its big brother treatment of its smaller neighbours, Mr. Jaishankar’s visibly hypocritical aspiration for an inclusive Afghanistan in the post-war era  – namely, respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan; promoting human rights and democracy; ensuring the interest of minorities, women and the vulnerable, etc. – is anything but credible. India’s horrendous record of suppression of Kashmir’s autonomy demands equally challenges its moral standing on human rights and democracy.

In sum, as far as post-peace Afghanistan is concerned, India is in a difficult position. Its moral deficits within its own country and its readiness to flex muscles against its neighbours, at times by riding on the backs of hegemons have made India the least trusted country, especially among its neighbours.

A complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan is dependent on assurances by the Taliban that Afghanistan would not be made a haven to attackers that target the US and its allies than on what transpires in Intra-Afghan peace talks. Furthermore, the US is also not much concerned about the ramifications of a deal on its allies. It is more concerned about its own security and protection of its geostrategic interests and therefore, to add to India’s anxiety, the US-Taliban proposed agreement is basically attempting to optimise gains for both sides which may help others and may even come at a cost to some parties including India.

Indeed, the Taliban are in a much stronger position now than any time since 2001 and a Taliban dominated Afghan government is a strong possibility. As for India, its best option now is to follow through the advice of US Chief Negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad and start conversations with the Taliban. For the long-term peace and stability in the South Asian region, it is time for India to show some realism and shun exceptionalism. It should also abandon the practice of acting as a spoiler at the best of others. There are new kids in the block and new realities to take cognizance of. Soon India appreciates these realities better.

Afghanistan is a complex society and the US and its allies that include India have made it more complex.

The US has understood the realities on the ground and shifting its position to secure a safe and sustainable exit. India, a partner in America’s proxy war in Afghanis must see these realities too and come to the table. Among other things and as a general rule, India must stop flexing its borrowed muscles against its neighbours and so far as Afghanistan is concerned, start conversations with the Taliban and also with Pakistan, the Taliban’s closest ally. India must invest in trust-building which may mean respecting Kashmir autonomy and treating its own Muslims with dignity. These initiatives are important for a partner, the Taliban, a Muslim political entity that has fought a long war against the mightiest country in the world, mainly to preserve its cultural identity.

 

The author is an economist: muhammad.mahmood47@gmail.com

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