By Rustam Shah Mohmand
US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad paid his second visit to Islamabad in less than a month on July 1 and held consultations with Pakistani officials. The visit came at a time when prospects for launching long awaited talks between Taliban and the Afghan government have brightened up following the release of most Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government.
Hopefully the Taliban will now agree to sit face to face with their political adversaries sometime this month at a venue that is mutually worked out between the two sides. Khalilzad has been soliciting Pakistan’s support to help start the reconciliation talks by bringing pressure to bear upon the Taliban to show more flexibility.
The US believes Pakistan continues to exercise influence over the movement because many of its leaders continue to either reside within Pakistani territory or have their families settled in Pakistan.
This belief is not shared by many within Pakistan or within the Taliban movement. Islamabad does have certain leverage over the Taliban leadership, but there are grave limitations to such influence that are not, very often, appreciated.
Under pressure from Pakistan but more so because of the deal they struck with the US on Feb. 29, the Taliban have finally agreed to enter the dialogue process. In doing so however, they have to be mindful of the enormous pressures that the foot soldiers of the movement will exert on the leadership.
Already there are signs of a growing rift between the various ideological groups with regard to holding peace talks with the Kabul government. There are elements within the ‘shura’ that are opposed to opening talks with people against whom the Taliban have waged a relentless struggle for many years.
However, predominantly the group will go along with the decision of the shura– the central executive of the movement. But the leadership will have to be extremely mindful of the way talks proceed. And herein lies the dilemma.
During the peace parleys, the Taliban will undoubtedly stick initially to their demands for a return to the status quo that prevailed prior to the US military invasion of their country in Oct. 2001.
This will obviously not be acceptable to government led negotiators. The government and its allies will offer mainstreaming the Taliban within government in exchange for their agreeing to bring an end to the insurgency.
How then, can the gap be bridged between such widely divergent positions that appear to be so irreconcilable? Huge US pressure will be required for both sides to find common ground.
On the face of it, Ashraf Ghani’s government will not agree to any plan that will exclude or marginalize them, and Washington will have to play hard ball and confront Kabul with some hard realities.
Without the US’s military and economic assistance, Ghani’s government could face a collapse in a matter of months. In the event of that assistance ending and US forces readying to depart, the odds will be against the incumbent government.
Ghani’s government will have to understand that US assistance is not an all-time phenomenon and that President Trump has his own political compulsions to bring American forces home and end the long conflict.
In the event of US forces leaving with no reconciliation with the Taliban, the country will confront a frightening scenario of chaos and civil war. That will be too dangerous a situation to face for a government that even in normal times has loose control at best over only half the country’s territory.
Faced with such daunting challenges and a rapidly escalating downward economic slide, the Kabul government may be forced, under US pressure, to consider other viable options
One such option could be resorting to the traditional Afghan institution of a Loya Jirga or a People’s Grand Assembly.
The Grand Assembly will take cognizance of the grave security situation in the country within the context of the Taliban’s insurgency, Daesh’s brutalities, weakening government institutions coupled with the impending withdrawal of foreign forces– and then decide upon the installation of an interim government that is broad based and multi-ethnic and incorporates the Taliban as a major component.
The Loya Jirga can decide on and settle other connected issues as well, like the mandate and duration of a transitional government in place until elections are held. It can also approve amendments to the constitution, making it more acceptable to the Taliban movement.
Undoubtedly, there will be strong opposition to any move that marginalizes the government. But the choice before the Afghan population is whether to save the current institutional framework with all its flaws and contradictions, or whether to save the unity and integrity of the country.
The Afghan Parliament and its government are sacred institutions, but alongside, the unity and peace of the country is sacrosanct.
US negotiators also realize that time is running out. It is not possible to continue to provide $4.5 billion every year for the Afghan army and police indefinitely. Russia and China have both forged close links with the Taliban because they are convinced that only a Taliban-led government can defeat the Daesh movement.
To an extent, Iran is also closing ranks with the Taliban for similar reasons. The writing on the wall is clear for the Americans.
The coming weeks or months are crucial. One overriding factor that Taliban must ponder deeply is that the people of Afghanistan are exhausted of an unending conflict.
They need a breather, an end to the hostilities.
(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.)