New US special envoy’s Pak-Afghan peace overtures

  • Uphill tasks

The newly appointed American special representative for Afghan peace and reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, visited Pakistan for the second time after assuming his current assignment of special envoy of the US president to Afghanistan. His previous visit last month was in tow with the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, which was an introductory one although Zalmay Khalilzad needs no introduction in Pakistan, where he was perceived as being hostile to his country of origin’s eastern neighbour.

In real politic, alliances and relationships are flexible only national interests remain constant.

Born in 1951 in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, Khalilzad grew up in the country’s capital Kabul. His parents originated from Laghman Province, and the family moved to Mazar-i-Sharif when his father was a government official, under the Muhasiban monarchy of Mohammad Zahir Shah.

Zalmay Khalilzad has had an illustrious career. After his basic education in Kabul, Khalilzad spent time in the United States as a Ceres, California, high school exchange student with American Field Service (AFS) Intercultural Programs. Later, he attained his bachelors and his masters degrees from the American University of Beirut, in Lebanon. Khalilzad received his doctorate at the University of Chicago, United States, where he studied closely with strategic thinker Albert Wohlstetter, a prominent nuclear deterrence thinker and strategist. Wohlstetter provided Khalilzad with contacts within the government and RAND Corporation.

From 1979 to 1989, Khalilzad worked as an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. During that time, he worked closely with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Carter administration’s architect of “Operation Cyclone” to support the mujahedeen, who resisted the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Having served in the US State Department in various capacities under different US presidents, working closely with the Pentagon too Khalilzad rose to be US ambassador to the United Nations, Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2017, he was considered for US Secretary of State in the Trump administration. On September 5, 2018, Khalilzad was appointed by President Donald Trump to serve as a special envoy to Afghanistan.

Khalilzad was received in Islamabad with politeness despite the fact in the past; he had issued vitriolic statements like declaring Pakistan a terrorist state for allegedly harbouring Taliban leaders

During his latest visit to Islamabad on October 9, 2018, Zalmay Khalilzad met with top officials in Pakistan to seek its help in bringing the Taliban to the table for talks with the Kabul government. The increasingly deadly Afghan war marked its 17th anniversary on October 7, 2018.

Khalilzad held delegation level talks with Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua. The two delegations comprised security, defense and diplomatic officials. The US delegation later called on Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

Afghan-born American diplomat Khalilzad visited Kabul before arriving in Islamabad. He is now touring the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where the Afghan Taliban operate their “political office.” It may be recalled that the Taliban had disclosed in late July this year that a senior US diplomat, Alice Wells, visited its Doha office and held “preliminary” talks with Taliban political envoys. That meeting took place after repeated demands by the Taliban for direct talks with the US because the insurgents dismiss the Afghan leadership as “American stooges.”

The Taliban are not averse to talks but have laid down certain preconditions. There are reports that when Khalilzad visits Qatar, their representatives may meet him in Doha but there are no official confirmations yet from either side.

The situation in Afghanistan is grim, after seventeen years of fighting; there is no letup in the conflict and with the incursion of the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh, and tension has heightened. The Afghan government, which is plagued by infighting, had announced parliamentary elections on October 20 after a three years’ delay but the Taliban have issued a warning that they would disrupt the process. They term the process fraudulent and bogus and have asked the people not to participate. Their warning coincides with an increase in the number of attacks both by the Taliban and affiliates of the IS in recent months, which have killed hundreds of people, including six nominees for the parliamentary vote and scores working on the elections.

The Taliban warning comes in a milieu fraught with uncertainties because of a widening political rift between members of the government, dissatisfaction among factional leaders over the electoral process, and allegations that President Ashraf Ghani is seeking to manipulate the results to boost his own reelection in six months.

Controlling more than fifty percent of the Afghan territory, the Taliban have proved that they are a force to reckon with, which cannot be defeated by brute force or subdued. Thus the emphasis on negotiations! During his stay at Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad called on the parties to facilitate dialogue by forming inclusive negotiating teams. He stressed that the US in cooperation with the Afghan people and government, wants to make a peaceful Afghanistan where all Afghans see themselves included. All citizens of Afghanistan must be a part of the reconciliation process. Rejecting such overtures, the Taliban call the US an occupation force and demand its ejection from Afghanistan.

The Taliban are especially irked by the recent visit of Erik Prince, the former Navy SEAL and founder of the infamous Blackwater security company, which was accused of killing civilians in Iraq. Erik Prince was a big donor to the Trump election campaign and is considered very close to the US President. He infuriated Afghan officials too when he called during his visit for privatisation of the war, using more US contractors. The Taliban were more direct in their condemnation and stated that the sovereignty of their land is at stake as the privatisation of the ongoing war by handing it over to a contract killer group, called Blackwater, is under consideration.

Prince sold Blackwater, which has since changed its name, in 2010 and founded a new firm.

US and Afghan officials alike have both said they think Prince’s proposal is a bad idea, but it has not been dismissed out of hand in part because of Prince’s close relationship with the Trump administration.

Khalilzad was received in Islamabad with politeness despite the fact in the past; he had issued vitriolic statements like declaring Pakistan a terrorist state for allegedly harbouring Taliban leaders.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, during his official visit to Washington, had apprised the US state department regarding Pakistan’s reservations pertaining to Khalilzad’s appointment. Donald Trump and the US administrations’ continued harping on Pakistan’s alleged support to the Taliban is most unwelcome. Pakistani officials deny the Taliban are operating out of their country and point to the vast “ungoverned” Afghan territory being used as a sanctuary by both the insurgents and terrorists linked to Daesh. Islamabad says its intelligence agencies have traced most of the recent terrorist attacks to sanctuaries on the Afghan side of the largely porous border between the two countries. Under the circumstances, garnering Pakistan’s support in enabling the Taliban to come to the negotiations’ table will be an uphill task.


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