By Abdul Basit
I was never convinced that peace in Afghanistan could be achieved through intra-Afghan dialogue. I still believe that peace in Afghanistan will come through war. The Great Game in Afghanistan is not yet over, and this is painful since Afghans also deserve to live in peace beyond the horrendous shadows of internecine conflict.
The US-Taliban agreement of 29 February, 2020, did engender some hopes. Many analysts thought that peace was now within reach as the Taliban had also realized that the ground realities in today’s Afghanistan were different than 1996 when they overcame all the hurdles and formed their government in Kabul and established peace in almost all of Afghanistan. Back then, only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had recognized their government.
Nevertheless, the hopes generated by the February agreement are dissipating. While the Trump administration is so far implementing its undertakings, including reduction of troops to slightly over 8,000 and the closure of five military bases in Afghanistan, the Ashraf Ghani government remains angst-ridden about the agreement.
One of the preconditions for the start of the intra-Afghan dialogue was the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Though the Afghan government has freed most of them, the fate of about 400 is still undecided. This is despite the fact that the Loya Jirga— or grand assembly of elders— held in early August had already authorized the President to also release the remaining Taliban prisoners. President Ghani convened the grand assembly of over 3,000 Afghans on the ground that crimes of these 400 prisoners were so serious that he was not competent to let them go without the concurrence of the grand assembly. We still do not have an exact date for the commencement of intra-Afghan dialogue, which was originally scheduled to begin on March 10.
There are some hard facts that would continue to elude peace until things are settled one way or the other, that is, a total victory or defeat of the Taliban. However, neither seems to be happening in the foreseeable future.
President Ghani, who was elected for the second five-year term in September 2019, is concerned about the US leaving Afghanistan. Anti-Taliban Afghans know quite well that they are not yet there where they can defend themselves against the Taliban for very long on their own. Since the agreement in February, the Taliban have killed around 4,000 Afghan security forces. President Ghani may, therefore, be pinning his hopes on Joe Biden’s victory in the upcoming US elections as a Democratic administration in the White House may review the February agreement and decide to scrap it. The US establishment may support him in reaching and making this decision as they also reportedly do not see leaving Afghanistan in the long-term US interests, though they would not even mind dealing with the Taliban if necessitated by changing ground realities. After all, China, Russia and Iran, too, are openly courting the Taliban to protect their own interests.
Ergo, the Kabul government may prefer to wait for the US elections rather than show undue haste in reaching out to the Taliban. On one level, however, the beginning of intra-Afghan dialogue process may serve their objective of exposing the Taliban early in the game and thus facilitating a review by the US of its decision to leave Afghanistan by May 2021.
On the other hand, India, which has invested close to $3 billion in Afghanistan, is also visibly worried about its investments going down the drain— should the Taliban come back to power. Moreover, the unstable and uncertain status quo also serves India’s interests in the context of both Pakistan and Kashmir.
As for Pakistan, it does want its western border to be peaceful as it has been paying heavily for the continuing instability in Afghanistan. No other country would be keener than Pakistan in the commencement of intra-Afghan dialogue and its successful conclusion with irreversible reconciliation. Hence, we have seen how Pakistan made every possible effort to push the Taliban toward dialogue while concomitantly trying to assuage apprehensions and misgivings of the Kabul regime.
However, it needs to be remembered that the Taliban are not a political party but an ideological movement. They still refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan, and consider the Kabul regime no more than a US stooge. They have also averred to amend the country’s constitution to cleanse it of provisions that, as per their interpretation, are antithetical to Islam. In short, electoral democracy is not what they are interested in. Nor will they ever agree to play second fiddle to President Ghani. They are confident of ultimately restoring their government that they believe was illegitimately removed by the US in 2001.
My family had many close relations in Afghanistan and we used to visit them almost every year until 1978. After the 1979 Soviet occupation, most of them came to Peshawar and lived with us before they moved to different destinations in the Western world. My last visit to Afghanistan was in 2009 as part of the Pakistan delegation led by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Kabul was not the same as I had remembered it. Will it be able to regain peace and stability? Maybe, but not anytime soon.
(Abdul Basit is the president of Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. He was previously Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India.)