By Mustafa Ibrani Khalil
The Eid ceasefire announced by the Ashraf Ghani government in early June 2018 followed a few weeks later by the Taliban stating that it would have a ceasefire on the first three days of Eid,are two actions with very different motivations and implications.It could be said to take on the Taliban first that they are genuinely concerned about the welfare of the Afghan people and therefore seek a cessation of hostilities. That however, is far from the truth!
The fact of the matter is that the credibility of the Afghan Taliban in the eyes of the Afghan people is probably at the lowest at this moment, as they have perpetrated more violence in the last couple of years than ever before. The Taliban therefore needs to re-build its credibility and ensure that its position as the chief opposition to the government remains in place. That is precisely why, the Taliban has chosen this moment to announce a ceasefire and simultaneously indicated its willingness (once again) to have direct talks with the US.
The Ghani government on the other hand is perhaps on a weaker wicket today than even the Taliban and requires a political breakthrough to give peace a chance. President Ghani’s earlier overture to the Taliban in February 2018 did not succeed, and the current ceasefire too may not last long. The current Taliban offensive Al Khandaq is of historical significance and one does not see Taliban withdrawing from any of its recent territorial successes. That indicates that pressure on the Afghan government and security forces will increase.
But optics are important because Presidential elections are due in Afghanistan next year. President Ghani knows that international support for him and his NUG is fast waning and ensuring security is the key to survival. One aspect of this process is the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process. The problem with this formulation is that several countries are involved in Afghanistan’s reconciliation process and none of them want to let go of the past.
Taliban fighters gather in Surkhroad district of Nangarhar province, east of Kabul on Saturday, June 16. The Taliban resumed their attacks after a three-day ceasefire last weekend coinciding with the Eid Al-Fitr holiday.
There is also the danger of things happening too rapidly and going out of control which could leave President Ghani with little territory to govern.Ghani is faced with a rapid attrition of the security forces and an advancing Taliban. One estimate shows that in the last year the ANSF were losing 200 soldiers a week! This would certainly have impacted the fighting capacity of the ANSF. The lack of security and by default, governance is affecting every aspect of Afghan life and this is beginning to show in development, health and education. These are difficult times and the international community appears to have done little to improve things.
This is where the Pakistan factor comes in. Pertinently, the US has said that Pakistan will have a key role to play in getting the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire and talks with the NUG. Reports also indicate that Pakistan did some quiet nudging to get the Taliban to propose an Eid ceasefire. Clearly, the Pakistan link to the Taliban continues to be active. Recall that General Joseph Dunford, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff had said in October 2017 while testifying before the Senate House Armed Forces Committee that the US believed that the Pak ISI continued to have links with terrorist groups. Dunford was alluding to the fact that attacks in Afghanistan were being carried out by the Haqqani Network, which is today a constituent part of the Taliban.
The transnational nature of the Taliban and its Pakistani roots are well documented most recently by Steve Coll in his book ‘Directorate S’. Suffice it is to say that Pakistan wants to take the position that the Taliban is today an independent and self-sustaining terrorist organization. This is an ingenious ploy for without Pakistani support to the Taliban the movement in Afghanistan would not last too long.
This leads to the point of discussion at the start of this article. Both the Taliban and the Afghan government have their reasons for wanting peace, but in the case of the Taliban it is the Pakistan deep state which is pulling the strings. Reports suggest that senior ISI officials held a series of meetings with the Quetta Shura to get them to agree to a ceasefire. The US may well have had a hand on the till to get Pakistan to act ‘constructively’.
There are however, too many internal fissures within the Taliban today which appear to preclude any direct talks between the Talib and Afghan government. It will require the combined pressure of US and Pakistan to get all the factions on board. That is one reason why the current ceasefire is significant. The other reason of course is that such cessation of hostilities are prone to inflictions which could spiral out of control very soon.
Constructive engagement with the Taliban will require a couple of things. Conversation with the Quetta Shura on a slightly longer ceasefire; this of course requires Pakistan to play ball. The other thing is to work out immediate negotiating postures with the Taliban without prejudice to the Afghan constitution. The approach to Afghanistan is best exemplified by India’s efforts to assist Kabul in the reconstruction and development of the country. If as has been reported, India and China are willing to work jointly on small development projects in Afghanistan and so is the case with India and Russia, why can’t this be translated to the realm of security?
The same thing could also be said of possible India and US collaboration. The challenge of course is that each country views Afghanistan through its own lens and there is no common perspective from the Afghan people side. The humanitarian side of the Afghan story is often lost in the geo-political game that is played. This must change. However, till such time that this happens, all sides have to accept that the US is the leading player in Afghanistan and any step taken to improve the situation would necessarily involve the Americans.
This is where the wheel comes a full circle. If the US got into Afghanistan with an objective, then they could well shift that perspective with a view to staying in Afghanistan. While the military perspective is undoubtedly important, other objectives could also be defined with the aim of stabilizing the country. What one needs to be careful about while articulating this position is that Afghanistan should not become the focus of a third country whose agenda driven policies have created the current imbroglio in Afghanistan. This point needs to reemphasized to all the powers who have been involved in Afghanistan in the past and continue to be involved in one way or another.
Ceasefires are undoubtedly the flavor of the season. The success of this endeavour will depend on the motivations behind it and the extent to which all parties are willing to support a long-term solution to the problem. That is where a concerted effort is needed by regional players to bring together the US and Russia to work out the small steps that could lead to peace in Afghanistan.