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Tuesday Jun 11 2019

Haggling peace with Taliban

Russia has tactfully used the Moscow-Kabul diplomatic relations' centennial to bargain peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In the name of this moot, the Kremlin has hosted Taliban for informal peace talks with warring Afghan factions. The event is also used to send a clear message to the United States that peace can only be achieved if a complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is ensured.

Washington, however, takes it as an exception.

After all, the US has not spent billions of dollars, fighting for almost two decades years just to admit defeat and quit. At maximum, they would phase it out, keeping a couple of thousand troops and experts around for the time being.

A total recall is more than day-dreaming.

The lack of progress on this very timeline has put the spotlight on the Taliban. There was nothing to lose even if there were no talks yet the chronic issue has suspiciously lingered on for too long, so much so that the Taliban find one supportive platform after another.

To the displeasure of the US, Russia has hosted them thrice in the past seven months, while many other countries are also offering their good offices. Little doubt now remains that Moscow offers more hospitable environment for obvious reasons.

The resistance force has received assurances that their political interests would be respected as long as they will not harm Russia.

Late last month, Moscow invited Mullah Baradar and his 14-member delegation to the table. The movement's co-founder met senior Afghan leaders as well as candidates who challenge President Ashraf Ghani. As expected, the Taliban did not accept a temporary ceasefire for Eid-ul-Fitr and vowed "to continue fighting till the occupying force exit their land".

Diplomatically, this moot pushed Washington further back. Back in April, a similar grand meeting — arranged for the very purpose in Qatar — could not materialise. Even the sixth round of the exclusive US-Taliban talks failed to reach an agreement.

Was it Washington's mistake for relying too much on the Taliban at the expense of Kabul? Or did side-lining the Afghan government backfire? Nonetheless, keeping Kabul in the dark about parleys with the Taliban has added fuel to the fire.

While postponing the presidential elections thrice led to waning legitimacy of Ghani's government at home, now, it feels divorced internationally as well.

A delusional Afghan president is now awarding expired ministries to cronies in a futile hope that it would help his re-election bid though he is likely well aware that the chances of such elections are remote.

This scenario, therefore, becomes further advantageous to the Taliban who have ditched every international effort to enter talks with the outgoing regime. They are now the only force that has the capability to dictate terms in the conflict-riven country.

Earlier, in January, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) had admitted that the districts under the government's control or influence remained at 53.8 percent while others were under Taliban.

Now, however, it is contentious how much of Afghanistan has fallen further under the militants as the US is no more tracking the insurgency’s district-level status. A prime concern for Washington is to find a strategy that can conclude the war.

To hit the target, the US is pleasing Taliban to an extent that even the "puppet" president’s close associates are accusing Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, for conspiring to become a viceroy of Afghanistan.

The fact of the matter, on the other hand, is that the Afghan regime does not realise that they have failed to deliver just like predecessor Hamid Karzai, who is now playing for the other side.

On the international front, Khalilzad has sought help from even those who are blamed for undercutting US gains. Washington has somewhat realized that without accommodating the regional countries' stability would remain a distant possibility. Here, the success in finding a common solution depends on how far US can address concerns of Russia and China.

The US special representative made a good beginning by visiting Moscow to meet his Sino-Russian counterparts. But when it comes to making a final decision on withdrawal, Khalilzad has his own limits.

It’s high time he hosted a long-overdue meeting of the Afghan factions' representatives and cement the pathway to peace. Later, then, a summit level talks should seal the deal.

US President Donald Trump has already hinted that he wished to complete the withdrawal by 2020. Almost 18 years of war has cost his country the deaths of almost 6,000 personnel.

Due to many good reasons, it’s still less than half the number that the Soviets lost during the 10 years from 1979 to 1989. The number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan also stands at ten percent of those this unfortunate country suffered at the hands of the Soviets.

Over these years, the US also doled out almost $125 billion for the Afghan reconstruction. Of that, 65 percent was earmarked to build the 309,000-member Afghan army.

Yet the so-called Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) is unable to face off the Taliban whose number stands one-fourth. As a result, the country witnesses roughly 50 deaths a day.

It is no more a question as to who supports the Taliban. It hardly matters even if the so-called indispensable peace-broker Russia is among the ones who is arming them.

For Russia, the foundation of sustainable peace process is being laid. A peace that has different connotations for various countries. For example, a nirvana for the US and India is different from the one sought after by Russia, China, and Iran.

Separately, the cash-starved Pakistan has its own priorities but its maneuvering capabilities are increasingly getting limited for seeking economic bailout. War-mongering against Iran, though, has posed a new challenge. Some countries take it as an opportunity while others fear the long-term consequences of the fallout.

In any case, the victor of the situation remains the Taliban as they have some active presence in the ungoverned country’s border provinces with Iran.

It is significant to note that even the Taliban seemingly expect reaching a sustainable peace. For them, the 'P' of the word 'peace' stands for the foreign troops 'pull-out'. The resistance force is convinced that it could deal with any eventuality later.

By hosting the Taliban thrice, Russia has had its future reservations addressed. It is now time for the US to make the deal before it is too long to have a good bargain.