By Rustam Shah Mohmand
AFGHAN President Ashraf Ghani is no stranger to difficult situations, but with the scale of his current problems, he might have met his match. For a person not known for his particularly deft handling of complex political issues, the growing divergence of views between Kabul and Washington D.C. over peace talks with the Taliban now present an overwhelming situation.
Ghani’s civilian government is largely convinced that the US and the Taliban will close on a deal soon, at least on core issues. Subsequently, Ghani will be expected to fulfil his obligations following an agreement that he has been ignored from almost entirely.
In the backdrop of the Taliban announcing their annual spring offensive ahead of planned meetings between Afghan and Taliban representatives this month, the government in Kabul now believes that any intra-Afghan interaction would be nothing more than a formality.
The suspicion is growing on both sides. The US and Afghan governments simply don’t trust each other’s motives and this terse relationship does not bode well for the US led peace-talks, which seemed to have gained some momentum following the last round in March.
This suspicion and the rising frustration of Afghan leaders at being kept out of US-Taliban negotiations was carried to the US State Department last month, where Ghani’s national security adviser Hamidullah Mohib and US officials got into a widely-reported diplomatic spat.
Mohib claimed that by keeping the civilian government out of the loop during talks with the Taliban, the chief US envoy for peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad was aspiring to become viceroy of Afghanistan – an allegation that drew sharp criticism from Washington.
Shortly after, another disturbing development arose, this time from Pakistan, when Prime Minister Imran Khan said an interim government in Afghanistan could be part of a settlement for ending the conflict. The reaction from Kabul was swift and the Afghan ambassador to Islamabad was immediately recalled.
At the same time, far more complex worries continue to grow within Afghanistan.
The Taliban insurgency is quickly expanding, and as the weather has warmed across Afghanistan, the death toll among civilians has been rising even before the official launch of the spring offensive. Defections from the army continue unabated. The economy is showing no signs of improvement and the law and security situation is alarming.
Ghani is concerned about how he must prepare for the upcoming election as well as a possible breakthrough in US—Taliban talks that could diminish the relevance of the entire election.
It is a unique political predicament. He is trying desperately to ensure his own position as an elected leader while soliciting the support of the US in prolonging the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan- forces on which his regime is completely dependent.
But he is fighting a losing battle. US President Trump, with his eyes squarely on the next election, will want to wrap up a quick deal with the Taliban and market it as a great achievement during his reelection campaign.
A further complication looming over the horizon is the question of an interim Afghan government, four elements of which will doubtlessly present difficulties: its mandate, its composition, its duration and leadership. Then there are questions about whether the forthcoming presidential election should proceed as scheduled at all, or be put off for some time to facilitate an agreement to end the conflict.
To add to Ghani’s worries, the Taliban are on the offensive and causing widespread fatalities among Afghan troops and civilians. In countering this, the US has increased its own air strikes which leads to more civilian casualties. A cruel rationale propels these strikes: by subjecting civilians to the threat of bombing, a strong local lobby for peace is created, thereby increasing the chances of the success of ongoing talks.
For the US, one way of breaking the Taliban insurgency is to seek an agreement on a ceasefire. The Taliban however, see that as a trap. To them, it is impossible to make their volunteers take up arms again once they have given up fighting. There is a certain truth to this line of thinking, considering that in most insurgencies, ceasefires have not only broken up the momentum of movements but also caused splits in insurgent ranks.
Faced with such grim prospects, the US and Taliban must take stock of the situation and move quickly to reach an understanding that lays down the foundation of a comprehensive peace deal. For such tangible progress to happen, the US must present its policy very clearly on the withdrawal of its forces. If that is resolved, the parties can hope to achieve consensus on the issue of an interim government, which by all means, is a very tall order.
(Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.)