A tipping point in Afghanistan

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By Maleeha Lodhi

Fighting in Afghanistan has entered a more deadly phase as the Taliban continue their military offensives and make more gains. This has heightened the danger of the country’s descent into a full-scale and protracted civil war. Hopes that the warring parties would make progress in negotiations aimed at a political settlement have not materialized. A stalemate persists in talks that have intermittently been going on between representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha. 
Meanwhile an anxious international community has been calling for an end to violence and urging sustained efforts to find a political solution. The UN Security Council, in a statement on August 3, urged both sides to agree to a cease-fire, respect human rights and make progress toward an inclusive political settlement. It also reaffirmed that there was no military solution to the conflict. In an emergency meeting on August 6, members of the Security Council voiced great concern at the deteriorating situation while Deborah Lyons, head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, stressed the need to avert a “catastrophe so serious that it would have few, if any, parallels in this century.” She said last month alone there had been over a thousand civilian casualties since the Taliban began assaults in Herat, Kandahar and Laskargah. It was therefore urgent “to stop fighting and negotiate.”
But so far neither of the two Afghan sides has shown seriousness or flexibility to make progress in intra-Afghan talks. An increasingly isolated President Ashraf Ghani appears to be in denial while the Taliban keep pressing on with their military assaults which have already given them control of half the country’s districts and large swathes of the countryside. As the military momentum is with an ascendant Taliban the key question is whether they are even interested at this stage in negotiations which will oblige them to make compromises. Despite repeated urgings by the US and Pakistan the Taliban have yet to put forward their peace plan which they said they would do this month.

A file picture of Afghan Army

Emboldened by their rapid military gains the Taliban may have little incentive to engage in negotiations. For now, they have indicated that meaningful talks will only take place once President Ghani goes. But they may well be playing for time and waiting it out for the US withdrawal to be completed before they decide to go for a military takeover. Their strategy has been to take border posts and towns, control the highways and encircle provincial capitals to mount pressure and force surrenders by Afghan government forces. When they captured the first provincial capital, Zaranj on August 6, their military commander announced that more cities will fall to the Taliban. A day later another capital fell.
All this suggests that the Taliban may be opting for a military victory. But statements by their leaders still convey a different impression and seem aimed at allaying international fears about a forcible takeover. In his Eid message the Taliban’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada said that in spite of military gains he “strenuously favors” a political settlement. Similarly, a Taliban spokesman declared in a recent interview that ” a military takeover is not an option” for them.
The international community has repeatedly warned that any takeover by force will be unacceptable. US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad reiterated last week that if the Taliban take over the country by force, “they will become a pariah state.” In similar vein a top EU official said the Taliban would face isolation and non- recognition if they went for a military takeover. A joint statement issued by the EU and 14 other diplomatic missions in Kabul called for an immediate end to the ongoing violence and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire. Pakistan has also joined the global community in opposing a takeover by force. Most members of the Security Council who spoke in the recent meeting warned against an imposed outcome. 
Do these warnings and entreaties really matter to the Taliban? The Taliban are surely aware of the risk they run of a military takeover – losing international legitimacy and the recognition they secured after the Doha agreement with the US. A major demand of theirs has been de-listing of their leaders and entities from the UN’s sanctions list, which suggests that international acceptability is important to their leadership. There are other indications too that the Taliban do not wish to return to the past when their regime was considered a pariah. Consideration of securing international humanitarian and economic assistance for the country in any post-transition phase may also weigh in their political calculation. It is therefore possible that they would want to explore through the intra-Afghan process – post-Ghani’s departure – whether they can achieve their objectives by negotiations rather than military force. 
This offers a diplomatic window to the international community to push the warring parties toward purposeful talks. An upcoming meeting of the Extended Troika – US, China, Russia and Pakistan – in Doha on August 11 is being convened for this very reason. It would be an important vehicle to exert collective pressure on both Afghan sides to accelerate negotiations. This is expected to be preceded by a meeting on August 10 in Doha of Afghanistan’s contiguous neighbors including Iran and UN representatives hosted by Qatar with the same diplomatic aim. 
Both will be critical diplomatic efforts at a perilous juncture. But the time for diplomacy is running out as military developments on the ground in Afghanistan are outpacing efforts for a negotiated settlement. If these efforts do not bear fruit, what lies ahead was graphically spelt out by Lyons’ warning in the Security Council: “a tragically intertwined set of crises – an increasingly brutal conflict combined with an acute humanitarian situation and multiplying human rights abuses.” 

(Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha)