War-weary US and the Peace Process in Afghanistan

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U.S. Afghan peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (file photo)

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra 2 May 2019

Peace process in Afghanistan took off last year with senior American officials travelling to Doha to open talks with the Taliban. This breakthrough was geared up with the appointment of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation. However, each round of talks brought with some amount of optimism even as the round of talks fizzled out and was followed by enhanced insurgency and violence. So far, while five rounds of talks have been already held, the recent round faced temporary suspension with the Taliban’s refusal to directly talk to Kabul representatives (the government) whom the group has long viewed as American puppet. The Afghan-to-Afghan talks scheduled to take place in Qatar (where the Taliban maintains its office) and intended to include the Taliban, Kabul government representatives, the opposition, and other prominent figures collapsed as the two sides were unable to agree on the participants.

Meanwhile, the US government has drummed up support citing the success stories of the peace process. Indicating positive outcomes of the peace process, the US State Department has referred to Russia, and China joining with the US calling for intra-Afghan talks which urged a ceasefire as well as supported “an orderly and responsible withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan as part of the overall peace process.” While the US representative Khalilzad is seeking guarantees that the Taliban will not provide safe haven to terrorist groups and work toward ensuring that Afghan territory is not be used to launch strikes against the US by transnational groups such as al-Qaeda, the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and ISIS in future, the Taliban have been insistent on a date for US withdrawal along with the release of all Taliban detainees in Guantánamo and Afghanistan. The regional powers have been stressing on an “Afghan-owned” and “Afghan-led” peace process, respective geopolitical interests of the powers ordain different roles for them. It is noteworthy that Russia hosted Afghan peace talks separate from the American format and China, Pakistan, Iran including Russia conducted a number of meetings and expressed their Afghan concerns which did not conform to the US peace moves.

Meanwhile, the US desperation to keep the Taliban onboard has at times led the National Unity Government of Afghanistan feel abandoned and the US sought an apology when the Afghan National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, did not mince words to blame Khalilzad of betraying the Afghan government. Indicating the continuing Afghan stalemate, the American military command in Afghanistan has reportedly stopped regular territorial assessments (quantum of people and districts that the government and insurgents control respectively) and this has long been an important public measure of progress in the war. Recently released American military assessment report (released in January for the three-month quarter ending in October), showed that the Afghan government’s control over territory witnessed a contraction by 1.7 per cent compared to the previous quarter. Continued military and strategic support lent by the US has not enabled the Afghan government to put its claim as a significant stakeholder in the peace process. Any peace deal between the US and the Taliban will be unable to address the problems of widespread insecurity, endemic corruption, violation of women’s rights and rampant drug trafficking. Even while the US has spent a whopping $9 billion since 2002 to combat opium production and trafficking to dent the fund-raising ability of the Taliban, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime projects Afghanistan as the world leader in poppy cultivation which reached its peak in 2017.

It is believed the peace process has tilted in favor of the Taliban largely on account of decreasing popular support for the American prolonged stay and squandering of resources in Afghanistan. Many American scholars have maintained that the American engagement in Afghanistan has gone awry because there has been no consensus on what victory in the war-ravaged country will look like or whether it is even possible. The American College of National Security Leaders – a group of retired flag officers, ambassadors, and senior government executives reportedly called for ending the war in Afghanistan as “it has gone on too long, soaked up too many resources, and become a perpetual distraction”. Some scholars argue that Khalilzad is not negotiating peace in Afghanistan; he is negotiating a managed US exit. Resilience of the insurgent group also prompted the Afghan government earlier to offer a share of power, inviting them to form a political party and participate in elections. The group declined the offers and now the US readiness to quit the country as perceived by stakeholders without making serious attempts at turning the endeavor into a truly Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process would hamper long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan.

The democratic process in Afghanistan has been stymied as the presidential election scheduled for April, 2019 has been postponed twice, to July and now to September 28.  It has been argued that the Taliban is not a monolithic structure and comprises pragmatists as well as hard-liners. While the former would be open to the possibility of a political agreement, the latter would remain dedicated to the military struggle. However, none would be prepared to yield on the Taliban’s core Islamic principles. The Asia Foundation’s annual Afghanistan survey and the nationwide survey conducted by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies found in 2018 that over 90% of the Afghan population does not support the Taliban’s cause. The sticking point remains whether the Taliban’s goal of establishing a “pure Islamic government” is compatible with the principles of pluralism, power-sharing and election-based politics. Not all the major powers such as Russia and China have recognized and pressed Pakistan on the question of terror sanctuaries. The question still remains whether Pakistan will accept a sovereign and independent Afghanistan and sacrifice its perceived interests (from the American continued reliance on Pakistan) emanating from Afghan instability.  The peace process will be strengthened only if it corroborates the little achievements made in the areas of state-building, democratization and pluralism.

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