NEW DELHI: Talks with the Taliban are back on track. After a whistle-stop visit to Kabul, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad officially returns to Qatar. The U.S State Department in a statement says: “In Doha, Ambassador Khalilzad will rejoin talks with the Taliban to discuss steps that could lead to intra-Afghan negotiations and a peaceful settlement of the war, specifically a reduction in violence that leads to a ceasefire.
The devil though is in the detail. An agreement on a limited or full ceasefire, reduction of violence, no attacks in certain areas or on foreign and Afghan forces, and especially no civilian killings is the wording in a deal that could lead to the next step on a bloody path.
Contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban political office in Doha haven’t been broken despite President Donald Trump’s tweets in September ending talks and cancelling a deal-signing planned for Camp David days before the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The formal resumption of talks follows his announcement in a surprise Thanksgiving visit to troops at Bagram Air Force Base and a meeting with President Ashraf Ghani that ‘the Taliban wants to make a deal. We’ll see if they want to make a deal. It’s got to be a real deal, but we’ll see. But they want to make a deal.”
The deal will have to involve what are called intra-Afghan negotiations (involving the government, civil rights activists, women and other political leaders with the Taliban). On this visit, Ambassador Khalilzad met several anti-President Ghani political leaders, including Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah.
The Afghan Chief Executive is in a political battle for the Presidential post with Ashraf Ghani. His supporters are staging protests on voting technicalities post the September 28 polls which still have no preliminary results. The process could go into a second round if no candidate wins 50 per cent plus one vote.
While the row over the elections continues, Ambassador Khalilzad followed up on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s call to Dr Abdullah by meeting those opposed to President Ghani. In a phone call reminiscent of then U.S Secretary of State John Kerry’s patching up of the two after the 2014 polls, Pompeo tweeted a day ago: “I thanked him (Dr Abdullah Abdullah) for his efforts to promote an Afghan peace process & underscored U.S. support for Afghanistan’s democracy. Afghans risked their lives to vote and deserve a transparent process and an outcome that reflects their will”.
That will also depend on terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan. As President Ghani said during President Trump’s Bagram visit, “Both sides underscored that if the Taliban are sincere in their commitment to reaching a peace deal, they must accept a ceasefire. We also emphasized that for any peace to last, terrorist safe havens outside Afghanistan must be dismantled”.
On dismantling terror, President Ghani on November 19 announced that Daesh or ISKP (Islamic State in the Khorasan Province), the Islamic State affiliate has been routed from its strongholds in eastern Nangarhar province. Something that U.S. envoy Khalilzad endorsed on December 4, tweeting “As President Trump on Thanksgiving said, there has been major progress against ISIS-K in Afghanistan. The recent campaign in Nangarhar is one example. Effective operations by US/Coalition & Afghan security forces, as well as the Taliban, led to ISIS-K losing territory & fighters. Hundreds surrendered. ISIS-K hasn’t been eliminated but this is real progress”.
That progress has been shattered with the killing of 73-year-old Japanese doctor Tetsu Nakamura in the same province along with five Afghans. The 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award winner, who devoted his life to the country, was known as a ‘water man’ for his untiring work in rebuilding Afghan irrigation and agriculture in villages.
He was also awarded honorary citizenship for his humanitarian work. The Taliban have denied responsibility for the killing. ‘Uncle Murad’ as the locals called him helped build irrigation canals that changed desert like land into wheat fields.
In the summer of 2019, Dr Nakamura gave an interview to NHK World, saying, “I think everyone tends to associate Afghanistan with internal strife, civil war. The truth is that most of the government and anti-government forces, the people actually fighting these battles, are almost mercenaries. Which is to say people have no choice but to fight on the frontlines because otherwise they can’t feed their families. So, if they had water, if they could farm, they would prefer much prefer not to fight”.