- Defining the narrative for peace in Afghanistan slipping into the hands of the Taliban
“Whilst some people have a history in creating conflict, others create a history in conflict resolution”.
Caught up in the midst of fluctuating hope, delegates from Afghanistan and Pakistan gathered in Islamabad for a track-II huddle to discuss the prospects of peace under the umbrella theme of “End of conflict, or end of the way – Stakeholders, prospects and challenges in the way of reconciliation in Afghanistan”.
Over two days of informed and animated engagement, a variety of aspects related, directly and indirectly, to a possible advent of peace including an appraisal of the reconciliation process, the regional role in facilitating it, strengthening economic, academic and social linkages to supplement it, and the need for a broad implementation mechanism in the post-reconciliation Afghanistan were debated as were some other possible measures that would help build trust among the two neighbouring countries.
This conference was held at a critical juncture in the context of pursuit of an elusive peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. After five rounds in Doha between the US and the Taliban with the sixth one now underway, there are indications of some progress, but there are miles to go yet to the unfurling of sustainable peace in Afghanistan. The role that Pakistan and other regional countries may play will be critical to cross the threshold into the coveted domain in a country that has borne the burden of a bloody war for 40 years.
While the Taliban have been open to parleys with the USA, they have also been inflexible in their core demand of complete withdrawal of the foreign forces which resonates with the Afghan people, thus enhancing their prestige and legitimacy
The very theme of the conference had an inherent challenge scripted within it. There is no tailor-made assurance that an end of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan may necessarily lead to the advent of peace. In the event some of the contenders to power in Afghanistan are not in complete congruence with the terms of the potential agreement, the prospect of a plunge into civil war remains a distinct possibility. Let’s not forget that Afghanistan has seen this happen in the not too distant past. It cannot be ruled out from occurring again as a consequence of a failed attempt for forging consensus. It also remains to be seen whether the USA, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other regional countries can actually converge around a grand master plan for peace that will withstand the challenges of time.
Another factor that was reiterated during the proceedings of the dialogue, and which I have highlighted in a couple of my recent articles on Afghanistan, is that a peace born out of multiple levels of exhaustion on the part of one or more parties to the conflict may not be a durable one, as a genuine desire would not be the underpinning of such an eventuality. Peace will be durable only if it dispassionately takes into account the needs and aspirations of all the principal constituents across the broad and varied spectrum of the people of Afghanistan.
While the agreement to secure peace is important, even more important will be the evolving of an implementation mechanism that should be in place to ensure that it is fully adhered to by all parties, more notably the powerful ones. Only that will provide security to all ethnic groups in a new Afghanistan that will take shape on the foundation provided by the peace deal.
The proposed peace plan has met with opposition even from within the government of Afghanistan. The Loya Jirga convened by it to charter a course for the future has been boycotted by most of the political groups, even some from within the NUG, including its Chief Executive Abdullah-Abdullah. This comes close on the heels of the falling apart of the proposed intra-Afghan dialogue that was to be held in Kuwait after the Taliban objected to the constitution of a 250-member delegation for the talks. The offer of a ceasefire by the Loya Jirga and its immediate rejection by the Taliban will add to the frustration of those who are trying to help chisel a unified Afghan approach to the peace and reconciliation process. In its absence, the next step leading to a comprehensive ceasefire remains a pipedream.
In essence, there are two alignments taking shape in Afghanistan with the USA and the Taliban on one side, and the Afghan government and its sympathisers on the other. This does not augur well for the prospect of sustainable peace. If Afghanistan is divided in how to approach the reconciliation process, and if some key players remain outside the domain of the dialogue, the chances are that either the effort will fall apart, or then, in a desperate bid, the stronger of the two alignments may try to force its way through. In either case, Afghanistan will be the loser.
The need for a result-oriented intra-Afghan dialogue was stressed during the course of the huddle so that all segments could come together to develop a consensus on how to move forward on the road to peace. A divided approach will only strengthen the hands of the Taliban and may also breed frustration within the USA and other interlocutors to either withdraw their facilitation, or force an agreement that could be counterproductive in the long run.
In the context of the existent divisive environment, it appears that the initiative is gradually slipping into the hands of the Taliban. Not only have they been able to clearly demonstrate unity and cohesion among their ranks, they have also continued to assert their gains in the battleground. This is meaningful since they refuse to agree to a ceasefire under any pretext until the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghan soil. This gives them legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people who look upon these foreign forces as an infringement on their national sovereignty. Consequently, the Taliban narrative finds ready acceptance and approval among large segments of the Afghan population which would further boost their chances of ruling the country in times to come.
I believe that this last aspect is central to the Taliban strategy in dealing with the USA and its allies within the Afghan government. While they have been open to parleys with the USA, which they refer to as the “real government” as against the “puppet government” they refuse to talk to, they have also been inflexible in their core demand of complete withdrawal of the foreign forces which resonates with the Afghan people, thus enhancing their prestige and legitimacy. This would make for formidable gains in the event of future potential to emerge as a credible and cohesive unit to rule the war-ravaged country.
That’s why the delegates strongly advocated the centrality of the success of the intra-Afghan dialogue to ensure an equitable and sustainable peace in Afghanistan. If that does not happen, and the feuding factions among the Afghan society are not able to converge around a plan, it is Afghanistan that will suffer its consequences.
On the face of it, it is a division that is multiplying with the passage of time, thus promising diminishing returns for peace in Afghanistan. That means either a prolonged delay in forging peace, or the country lapsing into another phase of civil war that would only bring protracted pain and suffering for the Afghan people.