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Monday Jul 27 2020

The intra-Afghan dialogue: What’s the hold up?

For now, Eid ul Adha has given both warring factions a new opportunity to release the remaining prisoners and observe another temporary ceasefire. Photo: AFP/File

Instead of starting the intra-Afghan peace talks, violence has intensified in parts of Afghanistan post the US-Taliban peace deal.

As feared earlier, new irritants are being created to delay negotiations. These include allegations that Taliban fighters still maintain ties with al-Qaeda or act on the behalf of Russia to hurt American interests in the region.

Now, the accusations may carry some weight, but their timing is nonetheless alarming. As a matter of fact, Russia has openly maintained contacts with the Taliban for the last few years. The Moscow Format is one such example when Russia hosted representatives from the Taliban's political office in 2018.

But, the question to ask here is why will the Taliban serve Russian interests, when the Americans are looking for a quick exit?

The United States has already withdrawn from five bases in Helmand, Laghman, Paktika, and Uruzgan. Honouring the February 29 agreement, Washington has also reduced military personnel down to 8,500.

It is true, however, that to add to their strength, the Taliban have cultivated ties with almost all the regional countries, which may further strengthen their role in the days to come.

In contrast, after the US-Taliban deal, Kabul’s position has become rather awkward. Even previously, the Afghan government had little influence in the country, but now they will have to share power with the insurgents.

Instead of moving ahead, President Ashraf Ghani’s government is hindering the peace process. It has yet to release the remaining 600 Taliban captives. On the other hand, as a bargaining chip, the militants are yet to set free 136 captives, mostly government officials.

Had Kabul implemented the US-Taliban peace deal in letter and spirit, the intra-Afghan talks would have begun on March 10.

For now, Eid ul Adha has given both warring factions a new opportunity to release the remaining prisoners and observe another temporary ceasefire. Separately, Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have already come to terms, after insisting on launching parallel governments post the election.

Both, it seems, understand that they cannot survive the Taliban attacks alone.

As things move ahead, a delay now in peace talks will only more create uncertainties, result in bloodshed, and reinforce the Taliban’s position on the bargaining table.

The time has come to chalk out a power-sharing formula between the Taliban and Ghani’s regime. The militants already have de facto governors in almost all provinces. In fact, recently, they demeaned Kabul and its intelligence services by claiming to thwart a plot by militants to assassinate Zalmay Khalilzad, the American peace envoy for the country.

Read more: US, Taliban sign 'peace deal' as Afghanistan looks for end to 18-year war

Meanwhile, the neighbourhood is keenly watching and planning for what happens next. After all, almost 60% of 34 Afghan provinces border one country or the other. Some even share a border with two countries.

China, which shares the shortest border, is actively involved in the peace process. With deep historical ties, Iran is also eyeing every move with suspicion.

One can imagine why stakes are so high for Pakistan that shares the border with nearly a dozen Afghan provinces from Nimruz to all the way up to Badakhshan.

Russia, that doesn’t share an inch with Afghanistan, is still wary of the situation. It can’t afford to lose Central Asian states, which could be vulnerable to a spillover effect.

Since the U.S.-Taliban peace deal was signed, Moscow has seen its role in the talks reduce. Russia knows that in order to win the re-election, U.S. President Donald J. Trump may announce a withdrawal of sorts from Afghanistan in September or October. Although the United States may never exit Afghanistan entirely.

This scenario raises a few questions: what are the long term American economic and strategic goals in the region? Who will be the like-minded partners of the United States in Afghanistan? And, can Moscow remain a mere spectator when some of the Central Asian countries are dragged out of its fold?

The intra-Afghan reconciliation talks, when they begin, could help answer some of these questions and clear the uncertainty of how independent and sovereign a new Afghanistan will be.

Unfortunately, gauging from the history of Afghanistan, one thing is for sure, even the intra-Afghan talks may not usher an era of instant peace and tranquillity. Rather, it may only turn a new page in the history of a country that was left to face a civil war.

Still, the sooner intra-Afghan talks start the better for everyone.