The peace negotiations between Taliban and the USA have been slow and sluggish, taking a long and convoluted path dealing apiece with the important issues inevitably to be part of the comprehensive peace deal. The statements of the representatives of Taliban and the main negotiator of the United States of America, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad are sometimes, if not always, at variance with each other. After the latest round of talks in Doha, It seemed that they have reached agreement only on the timeframe of the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan within 15 to 24 months. However, in his two-day old statement, President Donald Trump refuted even such agreement.
The other important development seems to be the willingness of Taliban to sit and talk with the delegates – to be dispatched by the Kabul regime – as representative of the Afghan nation. They are still unwilling to interact with the Ashraf Ghani regime. The most important issues that include the ceasefire, power sharing formula and the merger of the Taliban field commanders and militants into the Afghan National Army would be discussed in the second phase of the peace talks. In the meanwhile, the war is ongoing and there are intermittent attacks on each other’s positions with heavy collateral casualties. According to a UN report, some 3800 officials and civilians have been so far killed in these attacks in the year 2019.
According to a representative of Taliban, the agreement with the US on the timeframe of the withdrawal of foreign troops does not mean cessation of hostility or any restraint on their war against the foreign installed rulers and that they are at the brink of victory to achieve their objectives. Taliban seem to be driven by apprehensions that their field commanders would not agree to slacken the war. The Afghan National Army has also launched attacks on Taliban positions in the Balkh region with the airpower support of NATO forces causing staggering losses. Most observers fear that both warring parties have decided to accelerate attacks on each other to gain a position of strength before the start of the intra-Afghan talks. This would inevitably result in large number of civilian casualties and could derail the peace talks altogether.
The escalation in war has come at an ominous time. The presidential elections in the country are scheduled in the month of September and there are no signs of ceasefire between the two parties. President Ashraf Ghani wants to have a new mandate as the leader of the country to strengthen his position viz-a-viz the Taliban while the Taliban have been demanding the postponement of the elections until an agreement on power sharing is reached. There are all indications that the elections would go as scheduled despite security threats from the Taliban. The legitimacy of the new mandate for Ashraf Ghani would depend on the turnout of voters and the credibility of vote casting and vote counting.
The long war in Afghanistan has brought into play many stakeholders. There is no doubt that the Islamic State of Khorasan and Daesh and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan have strong presence in the country. The post-peace regime in Kabul would be dealing with all these militant outfits to maintain peace and normalcy. Although Pakistan, China and Russia have been agreed upon to be guarantors for the implementation of the peace deal, the real war against these militant organizations within the country would have to be waged by the reconstituted Afghan security forces after the merger of Taliban in the post-deal scenario. For the US, the most important element of the comprehensive peace deal would be to prevent Afghanistan from lapsing into a haven for the terrorist outfits.
There are obviously too many players in the game – more interested in prolonging or derailing the peace process or getting the Americans bogged down in the Afghan quagmire that include the militant outfits, warlords, India and Iran. The Afghan society is riven by religious and sectarian fragmentation, deep ethnic and linguistic fissures and tribal rivalries. The warlords were greatly enriched and buttressed by the stupid American strategy of subletting to them the ground war against Taliban. In the past 18 years, they have developed compelling political and economic reasons for the continuation of the war. The Ashraf Ghani regime has made adjustments with them conceding the political control in their areas in exchange for peace. They would be averse to abandon their position of power and privileges unless cowed down by the combined forces of the central government that would emerge in the post-peace deal period to establish its writ.
The post 9/11 war in Afghanistan afforded India an opportunity to strengthen its presence in the country minting money from the construction of infrastructural projects financed by the US. With the connivance of the Afghan rulers, it started a proxy war against Pakistan financing and arming militant outfits like Tehrik-e-Taliban and Balochistan Liberation Army which caused death and destruction in Pakistan. The USA was either complicit in the game played by India or just looked the other way.
The upending of the war and the prospects of Taliban coming into power in consequence of the likely peace deal do not sit well with the Indian interests. Therefore, it would certainly not desist from throwing spanners in the peace talks in connivance with the Kabul regime and the Northern Alliance, as much anti-Taliban, to delay the comprehensive peace deal. India needs more trouble in Afghanistan now to distract attention from its crimes in Jammu and Kashmir.
Iran would not be shirking from any strategic help to Taliban to achieve their objective through war. Iran, being well placed to exacerbate the difficulties of its arch enemy in Afghanistan, would like it to remain bogged down in this deepening quagmire. Therefore, the distance between the cup and lips remains as ever wide. Unless all the issues so vitally connected with the peace deal are thrashed out successfully, the situation in Afghanistan would be as perplexing as ever.
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