Afghan contentions derail peace prospects


By Talmiz Ahmad

On Dec. 6, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the US Department of State Zalmay Khalilzad began his third foray to pursue peace in a country that has experienced civil conflict and external assaults for 40 years.
Khalilzad, himself of Afghan origin and a former ambassador to Afghanistan, was appointed to his present position by US President Donald Trump in September. The envoy has been given a deadline of six months to fulfill his mandate, reflecting Trump’s keenness to get US forces home as quickly as possible.
As Khalilzad continues to engage with the Taliban, the sworn foes of the US, the group has been carrying out well-coordinated attacks across Afghanistan. In November, it carried out nine attacks in seven provinces, killing 59 police officers and soldiers. In early December, the Taliban attacked Kabul and the provinces of Kunduz and Herat, leaving 30 dead. Between January and June this year, nearly 1,700 civilians were killed, the highest rate since 2002.
The US has retaliated with airstrikes. Though prominent Taliban leaders have occasionally been killed, most casualties have been civilians — more than 300 were killed between January and September this year. US officials reported in November that the Afghan government now controls only 55 percent of the country, against 72 percent three years ago.
There has been no dearth of peace efforts over the last few months. In July, a US official met Taliban representatives in Doha, followed by Khalilzad’s first meeting with them in October, again in Doha.
Russia stepped in by convening a conference in Moscow on Nov. 9, bringing together representatives of the Afghan High Peace Council (not officials but appointed by the government) and the Taliban, sitting together with officials from China, Pakistan, the US and the Central Asian republics. India sat with the Taliban for the first time, though it was represented by two retired senior diplomats with long experience of regional affairs who were there as observers.

The meeting lasted just three hours, with 12 representatives stating their official positions. Azizullah Din Mohammed of the High Peace Council repeated the Afghan president’s offer of “unconditional” talks, and his willingness to discuss all matters of interest to the Taliban, including the presence of foreign troops, the release of prisoners and the national constitution.
While there was considerable warmth and camaraderie between the members of the High Peace Council and the Taliban delegation, the latter stuck to its consistent position: The Afghan government, being a puppet of foreign powers, does not represent the Afghan people, so the Taliban will only have direct talks with the Americans, the effective power in the country, to discuss the withdrawal of their forces.
Given the deep divide in the positions and visions of the contending forces in Afghanistan, the Moscow conclave did not yield a breakthrough. What it has achieved is to place Russia as a credible role-player in the Afghan imbroglio, highlighting how far it has come from being a pariah in the Taliban’s eyes for more than two decades.
Despite the dialogue, the situation in Afghanistan remains parlous. In November, a World Bank report said poverty was increasing, with 55 percent of the people living below the poverty line, as against 38 percent four years ago.
Nearly 2 million people are internally displaced, with fresh burdens on the state due to the return of another 2 million to the country from Pakistan and Iran. Most Afghans are either unemployed or in very vulnerable situations of low-paid and even unpaid labor.
Sadly, the near-term and even the medium-term outlooks are not promising. The national security forces are too undermanned and poorly equipped to contend with the commitment and ferocity of their foe. At the same time, US airstrikes have inflicted high civilian casualties and boosted the allure, credibility and ranks of the Taliban.
It is not clear what the Taliban’s endgame is. Its maximalist position seems to consist of rejecting any form of political order, including the presidency and constitution, and putting in place a society in which Islamic law and customs are enforced. Given the horrendous experience with Taliban rule in the late 1990s, there are hardly any takers for this option, either in the country or outside.
A fresh complicating factor is the emergence of Daesh in Khorasan, a territory that in the group’s maps embraces Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and much of India. Most of its members, said to number about 2,000 fighters, are from extremist splinter factions from Afghan and Pakistani radical groups. Daesh is responsible for over 50 percent of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
Russia believes that the US has airlifted extremists into Afghanistan from Syria, and sees them as a serious threat to Central Asia and its own territory. Some hard-line Taliban factions have affiliated themselves with the ideology and posture of these extremists, making compromise and accommodation a remote prospect. While both the US and Russia might want to promote peace in Afghanistan, the outlook remains bleak.

(Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian diplomat who holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.)