The hope ignited by a peace deal between the US and Taliban to end the four decade-old strife in Afghanistan unfortunately remains elusive as ever, due to the inexplicable position taken by the Afghan President in regards to its implementation and the differences between him and Abdullah Abdullah on the results of the elections. Both these leaders had claimed victory in the September elections and had held separate inauguration ceremonies, consigning the country to yet another round of political uncertainty.

The deal among other things, stipulated the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government and 1000 by the Taliban and the commencement of intra-Afghan dialogue from March 10. But surprisingly, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani refused to honour it and announced that the issue could be discussed during the dialogue. Thus, he scuttled the very basis for the commencement of the dialogue and the Taliban refused to talk to the Afghan government before the fulfilment of the commitment given in the peace deal. Nangarhar and Kabul witnessed brutal terrorist attacks which were disowned by the Taliban but they did accept responsibility for the suicide attack in Gardez. Amidst this volatile situation, the rivalry between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah continued.

The US expressed resentment over the situation and even threatened to cut aid to the Afghan government if it did not engage in dialogue with the Taliban. The US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad also re-discussed the situation with the Taliban and the Afghan government, urging them to work for peace and also took other stakeholders including Pakistan into confidence with a view to seek their support in this regard.

Though due to US pressure, the Afghan government has released about 1000 Taliban prisoners, intra-Afghan dialogue has not started as the Taliban are not ready for a ceasefire as yet. However, a positive development took place on May 17, when the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah finally agreed on a power-sharing formula, ending the permeating political uncertainty. According to the agreement, Ashraf Ghani will be President while the two leaders will name an equal number of ministers in the cabinet. Abduallah Abdullah will head the national Reconciliation High Commission and will also lead future talks with the Taliban.

Pakistan which has worked so hard in facilitating the US-Taliban negotiations and promoting an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation in Afghanistan – and felt really dismayed over the post-deal situation in that country.

There can be no two opinions about the fact that the agreement between the US and the Taliban which promised the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan has created a historic opportunity to end the decades-old violence and allowing the return of peace to the country which the Afghan leaders very much owe to the Afghan people. They should not fritter away this opportunity as their failure to capitalise on the situation could consign the country to an un-ending conflict, jeopardising peace and security not only in Afghanistan, but the entire region. The Taliban, who are also Afghans must also realise that those killed in Afghanistan are the Afghan people and they also cannot afford to continue with the bloodshed of their own people for an indefinite period. They also need to show flexibility in their stance while negotiating with the Afghan government. They will have to evolve a comprehensive and inclusive political settlement in the country before foreign troops leave Afghan soil.

While welcoming the political rapprochement in Afghanistan, Pakistan also rightly urged all Afghan parties to honour their respective commitment, work with perseverance and sense of common purpose and also guard against the machinations of any spoilers from within and without. The truth is that there are surely some elements within Afghanistan and some regional powers which would like to sabotage the reconciliation in Afghanistan to serve their own interests at the cost of the Afghan people. In this regard, the statement of the Deputy Head of Taliban’s political office in Qatar is very significant. He said that India had always pursued a negative policy inside Afghanistan and always supported a handful of traitors and puppets there, not the Afghan nation. He was probably referring to the support which India extended to Northern Alliance during their conflict with Afghanistan. They are wary of the Indian involvement right from the beginning. Pakistan also has been opposing the US contention regarding assigning any role to India in the post-pullout era as it would not be helpful in creating peaceful conditions in the country. Therefore, the US will have to rethink its position regarding India’s role in Afghanistan.

It is hoped that both parties in Afghanistan show a genuine sense of responsibility and honesty of purpose in reaching political settlement in the country. The path to peace is surely very arduous and demands lot of sagacity and foresight on both sides. However, my personal view about the Afghan conundrum is that the US actually adopted the cart before horse approach in fomenting peace in Afghanistan. While it was engaged in dialogue with the Taliban to evolve an exit strategy, it should have simultaneously worked on Afghan reconciliation and announced the peace deal with Taliban after getting the agreement of both the parties on future political set up of the country. It could have forestalled the chances of continuation of the ambience of uncertainty and violence in the country being witnessed in the backdrop of the partially owned peace deal.

Before concluding I would like to caution the Taliban and the Afghan government that this is a now-or-never situation for them. There are strong portents to suggest that US would leave Afghanistan with or without reconciliation in Afghanistan as it was a political compulsion for President Trump. If that happens without the Afghans having evolved a formula for future power-sharing, the country might relapse into an internecine conflict with disastrous consequences for all the stakeholders. The key to peace now is in the hands of the Afghans themselves. Their ability to eschew past differences and think only in terms of interests of their motherland and its people will determine the future of Afghanistan and the region.

Malik Muhammad Ashraf

The writer is a freelance columnist.ashpaak10@gmail.com