By Zahid Hussain
The telephonic conversation between President Donald Trump and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban chief negotiator has indeed been reassuring. The possibility of the 18-year long US war coming to an end has never been so close as it seemed following the signing of the US-Taliban peace deal in Doha last week.
President Trump’s telephonic call helped build confidence between the two sides. He described his talk with the Taliban second in command as very “positive.” Baradar too assured the US president that Taliban would honor the peace agreement, and all that sounds very encouraging.
But the resumption of violence has thrown the fragile Afghan peace process into doubt. Hours after the historic telephonic contact, the US air force was back into action against Taliban fighters who had launched a string of deadly attacks against Afghan forces bringing an end to a week-long truce.
US officials maintain it was a defensive strike to protect Afghan forces being attacked by Taliban. Since calling off the truce on Monday, the insurgents carried out 43 attacks across 16 provinces killing dozens of Afghan soldiers. Taliban officials denied there was any breach of the agreement as they were only targeting Afghan troops and not foreign forces.
The US-Taliban peace deal hit a snag within days of its signing when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani refused to release Taliban prisoners before the proposed intra-Afghan dialogue. Under the agreement, some 5,000 Taliban prisoners in custody of American and Afghan authorities were to be released in exchange of some 10,000 held by the insurgents.
Ghani who is clearly unhappy because of being kept out of the US-Taliban peace negotiations said that he was not bound by the deal. He has set certain predictions for the Taliban including the insurgents cutting off their links with Pakistan before his government considers releasing prisoners. There is no indication yet that the Taliban will accept those preconditions or would agree to a permanent ceasefire.
The Doha agreement calls for a phased withdrawal of US-led foreign forces. The complete withdrawal of US troops will take 18 months depending on the successful implementation of the deal. However, the latest development has raised serious doubts about the deal holding ground with little prospect of intra-Afghan talks being held soon.
A divided dispensation with various power centers in Kabul makes it extremely difficult to reach a political settlement. The prospects of the Ashraf Ghani government (whose legitimacy has been challenged under a controversial election) coming up with a coherent position if and when talks with Kabul and the Taliban follow is uncertain.
The official result of last September’s presidential election, which was mired in allegations of rigging, was only announced last month and has already been contested by his rival Abdullah Abdullah. With the ongoing power struggle there is still no clarity on who would represent the Kabul government in the ensuing Afghan negotiations.
While President Ghani insists that he will lead the talks, others want a more inclusive representation. In contrast, the Taliban are much more united and prepared for talks. The peace agreement with the United States and increasing international recognition has given the militia greater confidence. There are also indications of some of the warlords and power groups striking separate deals with the Taliban further weakening the Kabul government’s position.
Then there is the question of whether the Taliban would agree to a longer ceasefire while the talks continue. There is no indication yet of the insurgents agreeing to a permanent truce without an accord on the future political setup. Taliban leaders are still holding their cards close to their chest. It’s certainly going to be a long drawn out and extremely complicated dialogue process given past events.
A major reason for the Taliban not agreeing to a permanent ceasefire is that it would be hard to mobilize the fighters once they have gone home. Reduction in violence, and that too for a shorter period, still keeps the fighters at the post.
The future political stability of Afghanistan will depend on the cessation of violence and how the intra-Afghan dialogue is organized. Four decades of conflict have polarized Afghan society making it much harder for warring sides to come to an agreement on an inclusive political system. There is a tangible shift in the thinking of the Islamist militia that had in the past rejected a pluralistic political process. But it remains to be seen whether they stick to their solemn declaration.
(Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. Twitter: @hidhussain )