Afghanistan: The stalemate and solution
In the hope of “opening a new page in the history of Afghanistan”, Russia hosted a landmark peace conference on Afghanistan in Moscow last week. “Aimed at jointly searching for ways to promote an inclusive inter-Afghan dialogue to advance the process of national reconciliation in the long suffering Afghan land”, this ‘Moscow format’ meeting was attended by a five-member group representing the Taliban and the Afghanistan’s High Peace Council (HPC) – an Afghan body whose members have been nominated by the government to reach out to the Taliban. This conference was attended by various important regional countries like Pakistan, China, Iran and five Central Asian Republics. Unluckily, as usual, there has been no significant breakthrough during this Russia-led peace conference.
In August last year, President Donald Trump formally unveiled the US Afghan strategy to achieve “a successful outcome” in Afghanistan by “integrating instruments of American power- diplomatic, economic, and military”. This strategy primarily included intensifying airstrikes and deployment of more troops in Afghanistan, targeting the Taliban’s financial sources, and putting pressure on Pakistan. Noticeably, this so-called Afghan strategy has largely failed to achieve its objective. The US-backed Afghan government is rapidly losing the areas under its control to Taliban and other insurgent groups. Last year, a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) revealed that Afghan government was controlling or influencing only 57% of Afghan territory. Now, according to a recent BBC study, Taliban fighters are currently active in 70% of Afghanistan. A decade ago, the US estimated that there were around 15,000 insurgents in Afghanistan. Today, this figure is estimated to have exceeded 60,000. On the other side, the civilian casualties in Afghanistan are also on the rise. According to an UN report, there were more than 10,000 civilian casualties in the country last year. Thus, the US has badly failed in stabilising Afghanistan despite fighting “the longest and the most expensive war” in its history.
Apparently, the US has now started realising two important things in Afghanistan. Firstly, it looks convinced that it can’t control or stabilise Afghanistan through military means alone. Secondly, it has started considering the Taliban an important reality on the ground without engaging whom through a meaningful dialogue, there can hardly be peace and stability in Afghanistan. Therefore, the Trump administration has just appointed Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran American diplomat, as the US Special Representative for Afghanistan to bring Afghan government and the Taliban to reconciliation. Zalmay Khalilzad has met with Taliban representatives in Doha twice in four months. Similarly, he has also held meetings with other regional stakeholders, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. However, these diplomatic efforts have yet not yielded any fruitful results. Reportedly, the Taliban are demanding the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. They have also refused to recognise the incumbent Afghan government as legitimate.
Aimed at bringing lasting peace and stability to Afghanistan, there have been a number of peace initiatives during the last couple of years. To begin with, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai established the High Peace Council (HPC) to negotiate with various Taliban elements in 2010. Later in 2013, Qatar allowed the Taliban to officially open an office in Doha at the US request to facilitate the reconciliation process. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) was launched in January 2016. This four-nation group, comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States, has been trying to ease the path to direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But unfortunately, it couldn’t proceed further following the killing of Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in a US drone strike inside Pakistan in 2016. The Moscow format was introduced in 2017. This Russia-led peace process has also tried to facilitate the national reconciliation in Afghanistan. Under the so-called Murree Process, Pakistan has also tried to bring various warring Afghan factions to a negotiating table. But this peace process was also sabotaged through leaking the death news of Mullah Omar in Pakistan. The Heart of Asia- Istanbul Process (HoA-IP) is another important multilateral peace process which was launched in 2011 to promote regional cooperation for a secure and stable Afghanistan.
It is really unfortunate that all the aforementioned peace initiatives have somehow failed in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan since the participating countries have not been sincerely cooperated and collaborated with each other owing to their mutual rivalries and conflicting interests in Afghanistan. Moreover, most of these peace initiatives were also not in conformity with the ground realities in the war-torn country. In fact, it is not the incumbent Afghan government but the United States which is really calling the shots in Afghanistan. Indeed, the US has a number of strategic interests in this region. These interests compel it to stay in Afghanistan. Therefore, the US will naturally be more interested in preserving its broader strategic interests than stabilising Afghanistan. At present, there is a sort of deadlock in the dialogue process between the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban as both are trying to reach a negotiated settlement on their own terms.
The Six plus Two Group on Afghanistan was an informal coalition of six nations bordering with Afghanistan (China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) plus the United States and Russia. This Contact Group had been active to make peace in Afghanistan from 1997 to 2001 under the aegis of the United Nations. In fact, this Contact Group simply represents the genuine regional and international stakeholders in Afghanistan. However, over a period of time, India, which has not been a traditional stakeholder, has somehow succeeded in becoming an important player in Afghanistan to articulate and achieve its strategic goals in this region. It has evolved the policy of ‘Strategic Encirclement’ against Pakistan to counter the latter’s ‘Strategic Depth’ in Afghanistan. As part of this strategy, India has actively extended its influence in Afghanistan. India is currently the fifth largest donor and the largest regional donor to Afghanistan. India has taken an important part in training the personnel of Afghan National Army and Afghan police. It is also trying to strengthen a bond with the Afghan people through its soft power. It has connected Afghanistan with the outside world through the Chabahar Port in Iran to reduce the landlocked country’s dependence on Pakistan. It is also fanning anti-Pakistan sentiments in Afghanistan through a fierce propaganda. It is also operating an extensive terror network, comprising a large number of terrorists and spies like Kulbhushan Jadhav, against Pakistan from the Afghan soil. It is a fact that India has no significant interest in Afghanistan beyond harming Pakistan.
Pakistan, being the major beneficiary of the peace and stability in Afghanistan, has been part of every initiative to stabilise Afghanistan. It has actively supported an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. It also initiated the ‘Murree Process’ for this particular purpose. Pakistan has just released the senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader upon the US request to facilitate Afghan peace process. Indeed, Pakistan is deeply concerned over the India’s rising influence in the Afghan affairs. Therefore, the US and the world community must understand and address the genuine grievances and concerns of Pakistan in Afghanistan rather than blaming it for supporting the Afghan Taliban.
In the wake of political deadlock in Afghanistan following the 2014 presidential elections, the US brokered a power sharing deal between presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. There have been many internal differences between the two Afghan factions ever since. The Taliban and many other Afghan factions do not recognise the incumbent US-backed Kabul regime. The US and its allies played a pivotal role in evolving the current political system in Afghanistan. They introduce an authoritarian and highly-centralised political system ignoring the country’s multi-ethnic character. This system has miserably failed in stabilising Afghanistan. Therefore, an inclusive multi-ethnic representative regime in Kabul is advisable to help this troubled country meet its current national challenges.
There can certainly be no peace in Afghanistan as long as this unfortunate country remains a proxy battleground for some regional and international players. Now, the US and its allies should seriously evolve a comprehensive exit strategy to completely pull their troops out of Afghanistan. In fact, the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan is also a major precondition by the Taliban and other insurgent groups to make peace in Afghanistan. Therefore, essentially in line with the erstwhile 6 plus 2 Contact Group, a multilateral peace initiative is direly needed to stabilise Afghanistan. The United Nations should step in to help form a transitional government besides promoting a national reconciliation process in Afghanistan.
The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore.