National and International Issues

Afghan Peace Process Being Watchful of Spoilers

For the first time the current Afghan peace process seems to have brought peace in Afghanistan much closer and within sight since the direct talks between Taliban and U.S. representatives began in October last year. 
Another immediate outcome of the talks is the visible warmth in the otherwise frosty relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
No doubt it is the recognition of Pakistan’s role in facilitating the continual rounds of talks between the U.S. and Taliban representatives in Doha to resolve this decades old conflict that encouraged Afghan President Dr. Ashraf Ghani to call Prime Minister Imran Khan and express his desire to visit Islamabad at the earliest.
Dr. Ashraf Ghani – who until recently never spared an opportunity to blame Pakistan for every terrorist act in his country – wanted to discuss “Afghan peace process, security and bilateral economic cooperation” in detail with Pakistani leadership in his upcoming visit. 

One must keep in mind the fact that whenever some progress towards peace in Afghanistan or an improvement in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan had been made in the past, the agents of status and spoilers of peace – both within and outside Afghanistan – successfully, and very easily sabotaged the efforts.

Since the start of the U.S.-Taliban talks, Pakistan has been making efforts for arranging the peace parleys between arch rivals and hoped it would lead to end the longest war in Afghanistan.
No doubt at the regional front, talks have led to hope and high expectations, however, within Afghanistan majority of Afghans still seem to have growing concerns about post-deal administrative arrangements; especially the women and modern educated class who still have memories of Taliban era brutalities.
Even President Dr. Ashraf Ghani and his administration appeared to be either totally clueless or confused and have often behaved erratically at this crucial juncture when the future of Afghanistan is being determined.
The reasons for high hopes and expectations that the talks would be more tangible and result-oriented lies in the interests of the international powers including U.S., China and Russia huddling together to find political solution for the Afghan imbroglio.
As a stakeholder, the U.S. has directly engaged itself with Taliban while Russia, China and European countries are proactively doing the ‘push and pull’ for an agreeable political solution with the warring parties to conflict.
Amongst the important regional players, Pakistan’s robust role in bringing Taliban militia to the negotiating table has not been ignored and is recognized by all parties, including its worst opponent – the Kabul administration.
For the first time in the history of the 18-year-old Afghan War, the analysts believe that the engagement between U.S. and Taliban is more genuine than the ones in recent past. And this is despite the fact that Taliban have not yet shown any flexibility or political will on two important issues like agreeing to practically reduce violence or engage in direct talks with Afghan government.
At the conclusion of sixth round of talks, both the U.S. and Taliban representatives voiced satisfaction over the progress of talks and its outcome. Vowing to meet again in the next round, Sohail Shaheen – spokesman for Taliban Doha office – termed the talks “positive and constructive” where both sides listened to each other with care and patience. U.S. chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad said that the talks were making slow but steady progress. 
So far the talks are progressing well and facing fewer hurdles; however, the devil is in the detail. Its real challenge will begin when both the U.S. and Taliban reach at a certain agreement, or once Taliban sit with the Afghan leadership for a final settlement. That is where all the parties to the conflict and stakeholders need to be vigilant of the spoilers.
First, the U.S. seems to have changed the goalpost now. At the conclusion of sixth round, Mr. Khalilzad said the talks were ultimately focused on four issues, unlike the two in the past: 1) U.S. forces’ withdrawal, and 2) Taliban ensuring Afghan land is not used against anyone in the future.
According to Khalilzad the four issues are: 1) Washington will not agree to any withdrawal of troops as part of future deal until Taliban put in place: 2) guarantees against terrorism; 3) implement a ceasefire; and 4) agree to an intra-Afghan dialogue with the Kabul government representatives for political settlement of the conflict. 
One must keep in mind the fact that whenever some progress towards peace in Afghanistan or an improvement in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan had been made in the past, the agents of status and spoilers of peace – both within and outside Afghanistan – successfully, and very easily sabotaged the efforts.
Within Afghanistan there is a very powerful lobby whose interests are better served by an unstable and volatile Afghanistan. Other countries, especially India, will not be comfortable with political arrangements where Pakistan takes the center stage in Kabul. 
Fragility has always been a marker the name of Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship, therefore, the leadership of both Pakistan and Afghanistan must be vigilant of the role of spoilers as the current process is not immune to such incidents. In recent past, it has been observed that a single terrorist act proved enough to push both the neighbors to their traditional hostile positions followed by public diplomacy, accusations and counter-accusations. 
Inside Afghanistan the conflict has benefited certain communities or groups economically and politically. Looking at the landscape of Afghan conflict, almost the entire insurgency happened to be in east, southeast or south with traces in central Afghanistan. These regions are primarily populated by one ethnic group – the Pashtuns – who are the majority. However, during the last three presidential elections and four parliamentary elections, majority of the people in these areas were deprived of polling, either due to the fear of Taliban or even holding no elections as the areas fall under Taliban control.
Also, these regions suffered economically with diversion of social and development funds. As on the pretext of insurgency and instability, funds and resources were diverted to other areas falling in the north and western regions where conflict was managed to an extent.
Peace with Taliban means peace in entire Afghanistan, particularly in the insurgency hit south, east and southeast. This might not be easily digestible for those groups who are benefiting economically and politically. 
The powerful warlords and former jihadist commanders who have their fiefdoms with large personal militias are exploiting the widespread fear and uncertainty caused by Taliban and other terrorist groups for their interests. Any peace and reconciliation with Taliban insurgents will likely put their business in danger. 
Outside Afghanistan, India too will not be a country happy with an Afghanistan where Taliban have reconciled and hold increased influence in Kabul. For India, psychologically, reconciliation with Taliban means increasing influence of Pakistan in the Afghan affairs, undoubtedly, at the cost of Indian influence.
Therefore, both countries need to be watchful of India’s role during the peace process and take measures so that no one is able to spoil it. Pakistan and Afghanistan both exist like twin brothers and must look towards each other rather than falling victim to distraction and destruction by other players.

The writer is a renowned journalist and presently working with a private TV channel in Islamabad. 
E-mail: [email protected]

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