Too early to consider US-Taliban talks a turning point: report


— Report argues there can be ‘no peace without talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Kabul government’


ISLAMABAD: A report released by the Institute of Policy Reforms (IPR) states that negotiations between the US and Taliban should be seen in a positive light but it is too early to consider them a turning point.

The report, titled “Afghanistan: Hopes and Perspective” was written by former foreign secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan.

The report cautions that there can be no peace without talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Kabul government. It recognises that “American nod to the Afghan Taliban and removal of the self-imposed taboo on direct contacts with them” is an important change terming it “a half-way recognition of the Taliban”.

Yet, progress is uncertain and the hope of concluding it by April, voiced by US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, seems ambitious.

On its part, Pakistan has sent important signals. Referring to the chaos that followed Soviet withdrawal and US detachment in 1990s, Prime Minister Imran Khan recently said that his country does not wish for early exit of US forces from Afghanistan. Pakistan also released Mullah Baradar and pledged to prevent Taliban operations from within its territory. It has persuaded the Taliban to participate in the peace process as well.

Another promising sign was presence of both the Kabul government and Afghan Taliban in the Moscow and Abu Dhabi meetings. This is a step forward, though the two parties did not talk. There was also visible cooperation between Pakistan and USA in Abu Dhabi, which too bodes well. US has departed from its traditional singular goal of destroying the Taliban. Until recently, US also had pressured Pakistan to target the Taliban.

However, since engaging with the Taliban, the US appears to have nuanced its demand.

A major change is Pakistan’s recent emphasis for promoting South Asian connectivity, including the prospect of providing India a land transit to Afghanistan. This perhaps reflects Pakistan’s weariness with the Afghan conflict and its economic costs.

The reports further says that “arguably Pakistan should look positively, if transit trade can reinforce India’s stake in Afghan stability”.

The report also cautions against concluding that the recent round of negotiations are close to success. There is much to do before the Afghans can have stability after decades of volatility. Both the Kabul government and Afghan Taliban are averse to mutual accommodation. The former are holding ground, banking on continued coalition support because of concern about re-emergence of extremists in Afghanistan. The Taliban are confident of their strength and, in any case, loath power sharing.

Complicating an already difficult situation is internal division in both camps, which limits the space for negotiators. While the Kabul government is recognised internationally, internally it is “riven with political and ethnic dissension”.

Challenged by warlords and the Taliban, its writ beyond Kabul is possible only with US support.  Despite efforts, it has yet to create a viable economy or build an effective national army, argues the report.

According to the report, the Taliban are facing similar problems.

They are divided and may have kept the facade of unity by rallying around the single goal of opposing presence of foreign troops in the country.  This is why Pakistan’s recent statement about continued presence of US forces is even more significant, the report states.

The detailed report weighs the prospect for peace that recent developments may perhaps bring. It emphasises the need for direct talks between the Taliban and Kabul government.

“To expect that the Taliban will work out an agreement with the American occupation power is denying the reality of Afghanistan,” the report states.

Outsiders can influence, but cannot negotiate.  The report recommended that Pakistan should also do its bit to try to persuade Afghan Taliban to sit across the table with the Kabul government.

The main test of progress lies in the reduction of violence, “the kernel of the beginning towards peace”.

From there, ceasefire, prisoners’ release, some kind of acceptance of Taliban influence, and the latter’s pledge to not allow extremists to operate again “could pave the way for power sharing”.

In this regard, the report says, Pakistan can play a role by exploring and prodding the three parties.

The report concludes by arguing that it is up to the Afghans to realise the promise for peace brought about by recent developments.

 Read the full report.