U.S. President Donald Trump in his State of the Union address on February 6 said “great nations do not fight endless wars”. He said that his administration has accelerated negotiations to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan. The formal announcement is bound to encourage the Taliban in their belief that they could wrest more unilateral concessions from the United States. Taliban intransigence is reinforced by competing negotiating processes launched by the U.S. and Russia in Doha and Moscow.
President Trump’s announcement coincided with the second round of Afghan discussions in Moscow on February 6 and 7 which involved only the Afghan parties. The Taliban delegation was led by its political chief Abbas Stanikzai. Notable participants on the other side were former President Karzai, former governor of Balkh province Ata Mohammad Noor and Yunus Qanooni former Northern Alliance leader, all members of the power structure created by the Bonn Conference more than a decade ago. Their presence at the Moscow meet, which was boycotted by the Afghan government, shows that the unity among groups which have been part of the Afghan power structure since the overthrow of the Taliban is fraying.
Taliban leader Stanikzai made two key observations. He rejected the Afghan Constitution and stated that after the U.S. withdrawal, there would be no need for an army in Afghanistan. This means that a political settlement will bring not only new faces into the government but also a fundamental change of the status quo. Dissolution of the Afghan Army would leave those, who do not accept any future dispensation under the Taliban, powerless to resist.
Stanikzai’s comment drew an angry rejoinder from President Ghani. He said “those who are forcefully bringing others to negotiate must not talk about dissolving our ‘lions’ (army)”. Stankazai later claimed that he was misquoted by the media. He said that the army was created when the foreigners came and it was mandated to fight the Taliban. He added: ‘there won’t be any need to fight the Taliban’ once the Americans withdraw. The play of words disguises the fact that it is the Taliban who have unleashed a campaign of terror against the civilians and government alike. What’s more, the Taliban enjoy sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Ata Mohammad Noor, who was dismissed as Governor of Balkh province by President Ghani, underscored the need to co-opt the Taliban in an interim government. But that would weaken the Ghani government. If the idea is to draw the Taliban into the political process, the way forward should be to relax conditions for their participation in elections. Instead, they are being offered power-sharing before the elections without any commitment from them to either accept the Afghan Constitution or a ceasefire.
Noor has justified his suggestion by invoking the precedent of an interim government formed at the Bonn Conference in 2001. But there is a fundamental difference between the two. Those who took part in the interim government after the Bonn Conference did not question the post-2001 order which emerged after the ouster of the Taliban. In this case, the Taliban have neither accepted the Afghan Constitution nor a ceasefire. They attacked Kunduz and Baghlan while the Moscow discussions were on.
The National Unity Government (NUG) under President Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah have rejected the prospect of an interim government. But they will come under increasing pressure if the democratic opposition joins the Taliban in calling for a transitional arrangement. After the second round of talks in Doha, U.S. Representative Zalmay Khalilzad denied reports that the idea of an interim government had been discussed. But he did not rule it out either.
Khalilzad in media statements since has said he would like an agreement with the Taliban to be reached before the elections. This could suggest that the U.S. wants to keep the door open for Taliban participation in the presidential election on the basis of an agreed package. This is preferable to Ata Mohammad Noor’s suggestion that they be allowed to join the interim government without any sign of accommodation on their part. However, an artificial deadline before the presidential elections in July would constrict the negotiating space for the U.S. side. Unless, the idea is to use elections to legitimise a deal already reached.
While endorsing the idea of interim government, Ata Mohammad Noor stressed the need for a ceasefire, reaching an agreement through intra-Afghan dialogue and working out a framework for the withdrawal of NATO forces. There is some logic to this. Intra-Afghan negotiations should be held before American withdrawal changes the power balance in favour of the Taliban. However, this sequence is opposite to what is being negotiated between the U.S. and the Taliban in Doha. Those talks have focused on American and Taliban priorities: Taliban commitment not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a sanctuary for international terrorist organisations in return for an agreement on withdrawal of U.S. forces. The Doha process has left out the intra-Afghan dialogue on the future of Afghanistan and ceasefire for subsequent discussions.
Ata Mohammad Noor has emphasised the need to preserve the gains of recent years. He described women’s rights and the armed forces as Afghanistan’s national heritage. Similarly, Qanooni also emphasised the need to preserve the Afghan Constitution. These are indeed worth preserving. But doing so will be difficult once the Taliban are part of the interim government without having accepted the Constitution or a ceasefire.
The Moscow meet ended with the adoption of a nine-point joint declaration endorsing women’s rights, protection of social and political rights of the entire people of Afghanistan and freedom of speech to Islamic principles. While the declaration has no legal value, it points to the risk of a disparate opposition negotiating with the Taliban, who are a cohesive group.
The Taliban are using the Doha and Moscow tracks for maximising their gains. Direct negotiations with the U.S. could facilitate the withdrawal of that country’s forces from Afghanistan. The intra-Afghan dialogue in Moscow is being used to promote the idea of Taliban participation in an interim government before the elections or a ceasefire. The Moscow Declaration did not include reference to any interim government but the pressure will continue in future talks.
The perception that the Taliban must be accommodated in the power structure as they are dominant on the ground is exaggerated. According to a report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Taliban control only a minor part of territory (12 per cent of Afghan districts). The government still controls the major part (55 per cent of Afghan districts), while the rest are contested. The Taliban can launch terrorist attacks but have not yet managed to hold territory.
Handing over Afghanistan to a Taliban-led government through negotiations would be betrayal of the constituency which has been taking part in democratic processes. In last the parliamentary elections, despite the Taliban-led campaign of terror and violence, about 4.2 million voters out of a total of 8.8 million cast their vote, according to the Independent Election Commission (IEC). Voter turnout of 47.7 per cent is impressive considering the disturbed situation. But the Taliban believe in an ‘Islamic Emirate’, not the sovereignty of the people.
President Trump’s decision to exit Afghanistan is not new. President Obama had set a deadline in 2011 to exit Afghanistan. Unlike the Middle East situation, there is no countervailing force in U.S. domestic politics to restrain the administration from making a hasty exit from Afghanistan.
Pakistan has the satisfaction of seeing its labour bearing fruit. The influential Nawa-e-Waqt, in an editorial on February 8, lauded Trump’s announcement on the withdrawal of U.S. troops and called on the Ghani government to join the Moscow process. While U.S. military commanders in testimonies to the Congress in the past have exhaustively detailed Pakistan’s role in supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, this is not part of the agenda in Doha and certainly not part of the Moscow initiative, which leans even more in favour of the Taliban.
The U.S. depends upon Pakistan to ‘facilitate’ direct talks with the Taliban. Direct negotiations with the U.S. bring legitimacy to the Taliban and undermine the Ghani government, whose offer of talks has been rejected by Taliban in the past. Negotiations could also open the door to the Americans lifting their veto on an IMF bailout to help Pakistan’s tottering economy.
What are India’s options? There is a chorus of voices suggesting that unless India joins the negotiations it will be isolated. It is also said that our problem is Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Implicit in it is the assumption that the Taliban would have an independent policy. The Taliban did not recognise the Durand Line when they were in power in Kabul the last time around. But their differences with Pakistan do not extend to issues of contention between India and Pakistan. For example, the Taliban have made anti-India statements with reference to Kashmir. There’s also the point that if the Taliban do not accept the Afghan Constitution giving equal rights to the Shia Hazaras and women, how would they accept India’s plurality? How can they be expected to side with secular India against Muslim Pakistan?
But we also need to bear in mind that peacemaking in Afghanistan is a long process. It will produce winners and losers. The current balance of forces supporting dialogue with the Taliban—Russia and Iran—may not last. What has brought them together is opposition to the U.S. presence. Once it is gone, Iran will find an extremist Sunni group on its eastern flank while its relations with the Sunni Gulf monarchies remain strained. India needs to be patient and closely monitor the next round of the Doha talks on February 25. Before that, there’s a round scheduled on February 18 in Islamabad bringing together the Taliban, the U.S. and Pakistan. A Taliban statement indicated the talks would focus on bilateral relations, the issue of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Islamabad’s restrictions on Afghan businessmen.
At this point, India must continue with the current policy of standing by the Afghan people. It must also ensure clear lines of communication with the Afghan government and keep the dialogue with the U.S., Iran and Russia going.
(The author is a former Indian ambassador to Iran and currently Senior Fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi. Views are personal)
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