The “Intra-Afghan Peace Conference” held in Doha, Qatar, on July 7-8, 2019 has been projected as a major step towards peace in Afghanistan, which has been at war for nearly 40 years. This dialogue is inextricably linked to and dependent on the concurrent dialogue process between the U.S. and Afghan Taliban. It has also been facilitated by the efforts of regional powers such as Pakistan, China and Russia as well as other countries such as Qatar and Germany which sponsored the Peace Conference. While these developments signify important steps towards eventual peace in Afghanistan, the fundamental fact remains that it is essentially upto the various Afghan factions themselves to resolve their differences for a lasting peace in their country.
The Historical Context
To fully appreciate the significance of recent developments it is necessary to recall the historical context of the prevailing situation in Afghanistan.
Since the withdrawal of occupying Soviet forces in February 1989, the Afghans have fought a brutal civil war for control over their country, divided along ethnic, sectarian, and ideological lines. Efforts, mainly by Pakistan, to promote a peaceful transition such as through the Peshawar and Islamabad accords failed to bring about a power-sharing arrangement among the warring factions. Eventually, this struggle emerged between Islamist Pashtun Taliban and the Tajik dominated Northern Alliance. In between have been numerous warlords with changing loyalties. Though the Taliban managed to establish their control over most of Afghanistan by 1996, the rivalry with the Northern Alliance continues. Meanwhile, the Taliban’s harsh rule, including treatment of women, alienated the liberal and even traditional Afghans, especially those living in urban areas and abroad, denying international legitimacy to the Taliban.
Having achieved their objective of defeating the Soviet Union, which shortly disintegrated in 1990, the U.S. and its Western allies effectively abandoned Afghanistan. The country soon became a sanctuary for terrorists and extremists, including those that had been recruited by the U.S. for the Afghan “Jihad” against the Soviets, most notably Al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden. The vast ungoverned spaces of the country also became the source of opium trade and the epicenter for narco-terrorism.
Al-Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base led to the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in September 2001, setting the stage for U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the ouster of Taliban government. But while the Taliban lost power they were not defeated; they escaped to the countryside including across the porus border into Pakistan’s tribal areas, and regrouped to continue fighting the U.S. and its NATO allies.
The Americans made critical errors in their Afghan campaign: reliance on the Northern Alliance Tajiks alienated not just the Taliban but also most of the Pashtuns; failed to distinguish between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, refusing to engage with the latter; lacked clarity whether their mission was counter-terrorism or nation building; and most importantly, diverted their focus from Afghanistan to regime change in Iraq. This provided time and space for the Taliban to reestablish their control over most of Afghanistan while compelling the U.S. to fight for nearly 18 years – the longest war in American history.
At the same time, corrupt and venal Afghan governments supported by the U.S. and its security forces were unable to take responsibility for their country’s security or its development. Moreover, use of brutal tactics by all sides created a war fatigue on the Afghan people whose primary objective now is to see an end to this decades long war.
Throughout this period, Pakistan advocated dialogue with the Taliban since a military solution was not possible. But both Washington and Kabul did not make any serious efforts to do so, relying more on use of force rather than dialogue.
During his presidential election campaign, Donald Trump promised to extricate the U.S. from “costly foreign wars” such as in Afghanistan. But after winning the election in 2016, he was persuaded by the American security establishment to continue seeking “victory” in Afghanistan and approved further build-up of American forces in Afghanistan and sought a “position of strength” against the Taliban for an eventual “solution” on U.S. terms. He also blamed Pakistan for America’s military failure and imposed sanctions on Pakistan for “taking American money and not doing anything for the U.S.”.
Within less than a year, however, Trump recognized that a military victory against the Taliban was not possible nor would Pakistan cave in to American pressure. He, therefore, changed his approach, seeking a dialogue with the Taliban to end America’s war in Afghanistan, for which he sought Pakistan’s assistance. Pakistan agreed to do so since it had consistently advocated that there was no military solution to the Afghanistan issue and the only option was to talk to the Taliban.
Trump appointed Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran diplomat of Afghan origin and former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, to negotiate with the Taliban. Though Khalilzad has been a rabid critic of Pakistan, he has been forced to work with Pakistan to achieve his President’s objective.
The U.S. dialogue with Taliban started in January 2019 and so far seven rounds of talks have taken place between them in Doha. The main Taliban demand has been a specific time frame for withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan. In return, the U.S. has sought assurances that the Taliban would not allow Afghanistan to be used by terrorists to threaten the U.S. or its allies in future – a demand that the Taliban are willing to accept. But, initially, the U.S. also sought participation of the Afghan government in the dialogue as well as a Taliban commitment to an immediate ceasefire. The Taliban refused to accept these demands, maintaining that they would not engage with the “puppet” Afghan government nor give up the momentum of their military onslaught through a ceasefire.
The U.S. then tried to finesse this situation by encouraging a broad-based “unofficial” intra-Afghan dialogue in which Afghan government representatives can participate in an “unofficial” capacity. This American position has been supported by parallel efforts to promote an intra-Afghan dialogue by Russia with the support of Pakistan and China among other countries. Two rounds of such a dialogue have taken place in Moscow over the past year.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has also worked with the Taliban leadership and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to encourage informal interaction between Taliban and the Afghan government. These efforts have been supported by the major powers including the U.S., Russia and China.
Developments on the ground in Afghanistan with rapid military advances made by the Taliban have also added urgency to the need for an intra-Afghan dialogue even if it is on an informal and unofficial basis.
A further reason for urgency is the need for “normalization” within Afghanistan to ensure that the postponed presidential elections can be held from September 28, 2019.
Resultantly, both Khalilzad and Secretary of State Pompeo have expressed optimism that substantive progress in the U.S.-Taliban talks has been achieved which can facilitate an agreement by September 1, 2019. While the details of this potential agreement have not been made public, Khalilzad has indicated that this “peace agreement” and not a “withdrawal” agreement, involves a time frame for U.S. withdrawal, Taliban’s commitment not to allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists, start of intra-Afghan dialogue and a ceasefire.
However, the key issue remains an agreement between the U.S. and Taliban on withdrawal of U.S./NATO troops. The U.S. is not ready to concede a troop withdrawal deal until there is more progress on an intra-Afghan dialogue. The Taliban, for their part, have maintained that “when we finalize our negotiations with the Americans and get a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops, then we will enter direct negotiations with the Afghan side for the internal matters of our country”. Accordingly, from the Taliban perspective, they are willing to engage with the U.S. on “external factors” such as troop withdrawal and security guarantees but not “internal Afghan issues”. In effect, therefore, the U.S.-Taliban dialogue and the intra-Afghan process are intrinsically linked and interdependent, with progress in both forums being crucial to moving all the pieces of a comprehensive peace deal forward.
Intra-Afghan Peace Conference
The Intra-Afghan Peace Conference in Doha, though preceded by earlier such meetings including the two sessions in Moscow, was significant because for the first time the different Afghan factions, including government officials, Taliban representatives and civil society members, were able to agree on a “roadmap” for peace aimed at ending decades of conflict. While admittedly vague on specifics, the roadmap does signify a rare agreement and constitutes a major step forward.
The roadmap envisages “institutionalizing of an Islamic system in the country for the implementation of comprehensive peace”; and start of a “peace process simultaneously with the accomplishment of all terms and conditions set forth”. It also calls for “reforms in the preservation of fundamental institutions” including defense; calling for “assistance from donor countries post-peace agreement”; and requires “zero interference” from other countries in Afghanistan. More importantly, the participants “committed to respect and protect the dignity of the people, their life and property and to minimize the civilian casualties to zero”; to protect women’s rights within the Islamic framework of Islamic values”; not to attack hospitals and schools as well as national infrastructure facilities; and unconditionally release old, disabled and sick prisoners.
Obstacles in the Afghan Peace Process
While all these measures would have a positive impact for attaining peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, major obstacles still remain. Firstly, there is no agreement yet on a date for the tougher negotiations to follow for implementation of the roadmap. Other issues involve tackling women’s rights and agreement on definition of the “Islamic values” on which these rights would be based. Similarly, complex issues such as a ceasefire, setting up an interim administration for transition to an elected government or even the dates for the next election remain to be resolved.
More deep-seated obstacles on the path to peace in Afghanistan would also need to be overcome. These require the Afghans to overcome decades old rivalries and enmities – especially the animosity between the Pashtuns and Tajiks. While a Pashtun President like Ashraf Ghani may seek dialogue with the Taliban, the Tajik CEO/Vice President, Abdullah Abdullah, and his Northern Alliance supporters, especially in the military, police and intelligence service, are not fully on board. Then there would be problems of power-sharing with the Taliban which may not be acceptable to the Afghan establishment. Even if a power-sharing agreement could be worked out, the question remains whether it would be respected and implemented. Past experience does not provide much confidence in this regard.
For all these reasons, the Doha Peace Conference roadmap, though an important step in the right direction, needs to be implemented by resolving numerous vexatious issues while also simultaneously concluding the related peace agreement with the U.S. This is a tall order.
Role of External Powers
On the external side, the peace process would collapse if the U.S.-Afghan talks fail or its conditions are not implemented. There is also the danger that American security establishment scuttles an agreement as it is not fully on board on withdrawal of U.S. troops and some in the Pentagon want to maintain a continued military presence. Even worse, perhaps could be Trump’s decision for a unilateral withdrawal without an internal Afghan settlement which would lead to greater chaos in the country.
On the positive side, the Taliban have indicated that they would welcome international assistance in the future, especially for economic development. They also have a shared interest with the U.S. and other countries to eliminate the IS from Afghanistan, which could be the basis for future military cooperation with the U.S.
The negative role of countries like India could also derail the peace process. India is known to be strongly opposed to a Taliban role in government and could use its Tajik friends to derail the deal. India also fears that its interests in Afghanistan would be compromised vis-à-vis Paksitan, apart from being kept out of the peace process. Indian National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, reportedly told Pompeo recently that India is against postponement of Afghan presidential elections and formation of an interim Afghan government.
Iran may also play a negative role to harm American interests in Afghanistan or if it perceives that its own interests in Afghanistan are being compromised.
By contrast, Pakistan along with China and Russia have played a proactive role as signified by their July 12 meeting with U.S. in China, where all four countries agreed to support the intra-Afghan peace process.
Implications for Pakistan
Peace in Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s strategic interest. This would neutralize the security threat on its Western border, eliminating the current two-front confrontation on both the western and eastern borders. A friendly Afghan government would also dismantle the India-sponsored TTP and BLA terrorist groups operating from Afghan soil. Moreover, a peaceful Afghanistan would open up Pakistan’s connectivity to Central Asia, actualizing projects like TAPI and CASA-1000.
Equally important could be the positive impact on Pakistan-U.S. relations since Washington has consistently blamed its failure in Afghanistan on Islamabad. Pakistan’s facilitation of the U.S.-Taliban dialogue as well as the Intra-Afghan process has already had a limited positive impact on these relations.
Moreover, a continued American interest in Afghanistan, such as to counter the IS with the Taliban, would also ensure Pakistan-U.S. cooperation.
A peaceful Afghanistan would also encourage the voluntary return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan.
However, a failure of the Afghan peace process would have severe negative consequences for Pakistan, including heightened insecurity due to the resultant Afghan civil war, increase in number of refugees, continued terrorist threats, inflow of drugs and arms, as well as missed opportunities for regional connectivity. Pakistan-U.S. relations would also suffer.
Accordingly, Pakistan has a major interest in the success of the Intra-Afghan peace process, second only to the interests of the Afghans themselves. The recent developments in this regard provide the best chances for peace in Afghanistan which Pakistan has fully supported. However, there remain major obstacles that would need to be overcome. As such this is not a done deal as yet. Pakistan would need to continue playing a supportive role to ensure that the objective of peace in Afghanistan is achieved despite the challenges.
The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.
E-mail: [email protected]
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