US-Taliban talks: A road to nowhere
The US wants to get out, and seeks an assurance that Afghanistan would not be used to target the US. But will the Taliban honour it if and when it comes to power? Would the Pakistani army allow the Taliban enough leeway to act independently in Afghanistan’s interest?Updated: Mar 25, 2019 20:52 IST
Even as Afghans celebrated Navroz on March 21, their new year, there was a terrorist attack in Kabul that killed six people. This attack, like other, even more deadly attacks, comes in the background of the US and Taliban announcing that their peace talks have agreed on two of the four issues identified. These are the time table for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and a guarantee by the Taliban that Afghanistan would not allow any terrorists group threatening others to operate from its soil.
The fifth round of negotiations that lasted 16 days ended on March 12. The two pending issues are trickier. The first is a ceasefire agreement; and the other, an agreement on the composition of the future Afghan government. Even as Zalmay Khalilzad briefs special representatives of Russia, EU and others on his talks, the Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib was in Washington accusing Khalilzad of pushing his personal agenda. There were strong rumours in Afghan political circles in 2009 and 2014 that Khalilzad was pushing his own candidature. Afghans have a comfort level with dual citizenship borne out of years of refugee status, with Ashraf Ghani opting out of his US citizenship only in 2014, and not earlier when he was a minister.
Mohib was reflecting the views of not just Ghani, whose democratically legitimate government has been kept out of the negotiations, but of most of the political class. Khalilzad has periodically briefed Ghani, which was highlighted by the US State Department reacting to Mohib’s public statement. In fact, Mohib was privately taken to the cleaners by US undersecretary Hale for questioning US policy.
The Afghans, meanwhile, have not been able to set their own house in order. The results of parliamentary elections held in October 2018 are still to be finalised. Ghani had to overhaul the entire election machinery but there is still no agreement of legal changes to ensure a free and fair election. Taking advantage of this confusion, the presidential elections scheduled for April 20 were first postponed to July 20, and have been further pushed to the end of September. While this has been interpreted to mean that it allows the flexibility to accommodate the Taliban in the event of a peace deal, the fact while the voting day has been postponed, the last date for filing nominations has not. So unless the process is scrapped, a showdown between the Afghan government on the one hand and the US-Taliban on the other cannot be ruled out.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has been demonstrating its clout in different ways. A formal meeting of the Taliban negotiating team was held with the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. The Taliban spokesperson Zaibullah Mujahid said there had been “comprehensive discussions about Pak-Afghan relations and issues pertaining to Afghan refugees and Afghan businessmen”.Clearly, Pakistan was trying to bring itself formally in to the peace process. It wants public acknowledgement of its role, as Imran Khan made it clear in his statement in Parliament. It is looking at a reversal of the effects of Trump’s bad-mouthing and cut in aid. Further, by putting Imran Khan in front, the army wants to try and reinforce deniability of its own Afghan policy. Even relatively informed western journalists see an elected government in Pakistan with a benign eye, ignoring its lack of real autonomy or agency. The Pakistani army’s game plan becomes obvious when one looks at the topics discussed, which were purely ones that sovereigns discuss. In the bargain, it sought to delegitimise the Afghan government, and put Taliban in its place.
Even Russia was in the act of demonstrating its relevance. It convened an Intra-Afghan conference in Moscow. The Taliban and a whole host of anti-Ghani participants, led by Karzai, Atta Mohamed Noor, Hanif Atmar, Mohamed Mohaqek (deputy chief executive), attended. The Afghan government was absent. The Taliban aim was simple, to present a more moderate version of itself. It said that a future Afghan government would not just comprise the Taliban, but would include others, and women would have full rights envisaged in the Koran. The irony of the situation was lost on the Taliban that rejects the present Constitutional set-up and hence legitimacy of the government, but accepted the legitimacy of the opposition, including of chief executive. Paradoxically, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive, is a candidate in the presidential elections but remains the number 2 in the Ghani government.
Earlier, when the peace talks were at its initial stages, the Taliban had informally announced a framework agreement, which included the withdrawal of foreign troops and, more important, interim governance arrangements. However, the backlash within its ranks was so strong that the statement had to be withdrawn. Mujahid denied its existence and had to mollify their ranks by saying that sacrifices of the jihadis would not go in vain.
The common perception in the region is that the US wants to get out, honourably. The acceptable fig leaf is that Afghanistan would not be used to launch attacks on the US, so no Al Qaeda and no ISIS. But will the Taliban honour it if and when it comes to power? Even more importantly, would the Pakistani army allow the Taliban enough leeway to act independently in Afghanistan’s interest?
Shakti Sinha is the director of Nehru Memorial museum and library. He retired as a secretary in the Delhi government
The views expressed are personal