Afghan peace process: Which way will it really take?
It will not be outlandish to conclude that the recent Taliban-Afghan peace conference in Moscow has widened the way for a Russian footfall in the messy affairs of Afghanistan in the wake of the latter's successful manoeuvres in the Middle East and West Asia where Moscow has been able to stave off disasters for President Bashr al Assad of Syria, its steadfast ally. There are however two uncomfortable portents in the initiative. First, there was no participation by the legitimate Afghan government which still commands certain amount of popular allegiance. Secondly there was no assurance by the Taliban that it would abjure violent operations.
It is obvious now that Taliban has been negotiating from a position of strength. Donald Trump has declared his intention to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan. Just two weeks before the abovementioned Afghan peace meeting in Moscow, US and Taliban had met in Doha, capital of Qatar, where the two sides agreed to form two committees to fine tune two proposals--withdrawal of US forces from Afghan soil and a guarantee from the Taliban that no terrorist organization like the Al-Qaeda will be allowed to set up bases there.
Behind the scenes developments however indicate that there are reasons of hope. Reporting on the Doha talk the New York Times (NYT) has quoted an unidentified American official who has averred that the US has laid stress on a ceasefire by the Taliban and a direct talk between the latter and the Ashraf Ghani government. Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman from the Taliban side, has sought some more time for conferring with his top leadership on these two US demand before the talk again resumes on February 25.
Secondly, the Taliban has appointed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as the new head of its political office in Doha. This means that Sher Muhammed Stanikzai, so long the principal negotiator on behalf of the Taliban, will be gradually removed from negotiation tables. Mullah Baradar once occupied the second position in the Taliban after Mullah Omar. His taking over of the Doha office establishes that the Taliban is giving high importance to peace and transition talks whether it is with the US or under a Russian initiative.
But the most crucial issue--a direct talk between the Taliban and the Afghan government--needs very careful handling. Most probably the Taliban is open to talk but is using it as a tool to ensure the US, NATO and non-NATO forces' withdrawal. On an earlier occasion Stanikzai had given clear hints in this regard. He had said that talks with the Ashraf Ghani government can take place once the US sets a timetable for troops' withdrawal and provide international guarantee for it.
But there is a lurking suspicion among all the stakeholders that the social cost of a total US/ NATO troops' withdrawal might be heavy. Several Afghan women's groups are worried that reestablishment of a Taliban rule might result in loss of rights that women now enjoy. Perhaps keeping in mind international apprehensions in this regard Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy on Afghanistan, has uttered that ' nothing is agreed unless everything is agreed'. The NYT, quoting official US sources, informs that the US considers the whole approach ' interconnected' and views it as a' package deal'. This again indicates the possibility that as the talks progress the issue might not be constricted by the twin questions of US/NATO forces' withdrawal and Taliban guarantee for not allowing any terrorist group on Afghan soil.
So far Russia has organized two meetings of Afghan stake holders- one in November last and the latest one in February. Till now the Russian initiative has not been able to produce many results save uttering of some pious words. But the February meeting is noteworthy in the sense that in addition to the Taliban almost all the former mujahideen warlords participated in it. Moreover Russia has high degree of influence over the Tajiks, Uzbeks and the Hazara Shias of Afghanistan who command considerable influence over large swaths of territories in northern Afghanistan. It will be interesting to watch who can make the breakthrough first--the US or Russia.
If the US views the issue only from an angle of their own national security then solution to the Afghan problem will become much more complex. Some other countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are trying to find a solution in their own ways and both the US and Russia should coordinate peace initiatives with these countries. It should better be accepted as a ground reality that the Taliban would not agree to just lay down arms and integrate itself with the present system.
It would forcefully press forward its demand for 'reforms', an euphemism for a complete overhaul of the present constitution. It is axiomatic that it would call for a new constitution to be drafted by Afghan religious scholars and intellectuals. This is a very vital point and on its amicable resolution will rest the possibility of a solution of the Afghan imbroglio.
The road to peace is still littered with thorns. Ashraf Ghani has made it clear that he will not put his signature on any agreement which would undermine his position. It is true that Ghani's government now suffers from a question of legitimacy with only 53 per cent of Afghanistan under its control. But its concurrence and participation in any peace agreement is necessary because it also represents a significant portion of Afghan sentiments.
The author is a senior Indian journalist and commentator