Take One – Of Blood and Olive Branches

As the Taliban teeter on the edge of yet another spring offensive, the deadlock in intra-Afghan negotiations persists. With regional stability on the line, Jinnah Institute solicits the opinion of senior Afghan watchers on prospects and challenges for peace, Pak-Afghan relations, and policy recommendations for Pakistan.

Sherry Rehman, President Jinnah Institute

In a long, drawn-out reconciliation effort that has thus far banked on a US-Taliban dialogue, the inclusion of the Kabul government and Afghanistan’s multiple and competing political interests is now crucial to the sustainability of any ongoing effort to end one of the longest wars in recent history. The cancellation of the Doha talks earlier this week has dimmed the prospects for traversing the Taliban-Kabul divide and charting an inclusive path to reconciliation. The Taliban’s objections to the composition of the 250 member delegation including, among others, women and youth representatives from Afghanistan have been mirrored by concerns of anti-Taliban political groups who continue to reject the reconciliation effort. As efforts to bridge the divide redouble in the weeks to come, the centrality of women and other marginalised voices to the dialogue is gaining much needed momentum. In Afghanistan, the trending hashtag #MyRedLine is a reflection of the voices of Afghan women and their expectations from a post-reconciliation set-up. The news of the Taliban meeting a small group of women activists in Doha despite the cancellation of the talks has come as a positive sign of engagement, raising the prospects for securing the gains for women in a post-war government. In Pakistan, the decision to not take part in the intra-Afghan dialogue has come as a surprise. For a country that has borne the brunt of the conflict next door, staying involved in the reconciliation effort is essential. It is still unclear whether Islamabad’s decision to stay out of the Doha talks has been a reaction to Kabul’s vociferous objections to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s undiplomatic support for an interim government, or whether the decision has been made at the request of Kabul to ensure a light footprint for Pakistan in the days to come. Either way, managing the politics of an intra-Afghan dialogue and the optics of Islamabad’s involvement in the reconciliation effort will be essential for building trust in the process.

Riaz Mohammad Khan, Former Foreign Secretary

The Taliban are poised to launch yet another spring offensive. The insurgency’s leadership has rejected the possibility of a ceasefire until a complete US withdrawal. The Taliban are also reluctant to engage with representatives of the Kabul regime. This is reminiscent of the post-Soviet withdrawal attitude of hardline mujahideen factions. Today, like before, the Taliban position is rooted in the fear that foot soldiers will lose motivation and disperse once they engage in talks with Kabul or agree to a ceasefire. Militancy appears to have fused the motivation for jihad with a tribal warfare lifestyle sustained on subsistence living. But regardless of its antediluvian character, we must acknowledge the tenacity of the Taliban and their predecessors, and the fact that they could exasperate the superpowers of the day. Washington and Kabul are culpable for their own misplaced arrogance. They treated the Taliban with disdain, and termed them terrorists. Another affliction is the deep ethnic antipathy that is responsible for historical Afghan bloodletting. Soviet, American and Pakistani policies fell into this divide. Against this backdrop, what are the prospects for peace, and what can Pakistan do? Zalmay Khalilzad is doing all he can to stretch the space created by US willingness to talk to the Taliban. But he cannot circumvent the imperative of an intra-Afghan dialogue that includes the Kabul regime. If this materialises, the big question then will be what it can accomplish. So far, the Taliban are opposing the idea of elections under the present political dispensation, and the Kabul regime abhors the idea of an interim arrangement meant to facilitate a political transition. Afghanistan remains fragmented among warlords along ethnic divisions superimposed with familiar regional rivalries. Even if Afghan factions miraculously reach an agreement, there is no guarantee that hostilities will not resume once the bulk of foreign forces have withdrawn. Any sensible policy on the part of Pakistan will require it to exert itself fully for reconciliation and stability, to extend positive support for peace efforts and to do so with circumspection. Not all Afghans view Pakistan’s role as benign. Nonetheless, after Afghanistan, Pakistan is affected most by the conflict. A stable Afghanistan alone can allow the natural advantages of geography and demographics to play to Pakistan’s benefit.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, Journalist

Islamabad’s ties with Kabul continue to be clouded by mistrust even as it tries to play the role of a facilitator in the Afghan peace process. The unfriendly nature of this relationship was recently thrown into sharp relief when Kabul protested for the fourth time in two months against Prime Minister Imran Khan’s comments on the peace process. A scheduled visit by a Taliban delegation to Pakistan ended up falling through the cracks; Prime Minister Khan said he cancelled the meeting due to objections by the Afghan government. President Ashraf Ghani’s government termed Imran Khan’s “brotherly advice” on the formation of an interim government “irresponsible” and an attack on Afghanistan’s sovereignty. Earlier in February, Pakistan had lodged a protest against President Ghani’s remarks on the treatment of civil activists in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.” Handing protests note to Afghan and Pakistani diplomats in Islamabad and Kabul is fairly common, but interestingly this hasn’t stopped either side from staying engaged or trying to improve relations. In early 2018, Kabul accepted Islamabad’s proposal to form five working groups under the Afghanistan Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS) framework to focus on solution of critical issues concerning security, border management, trade and refugees. Though the working groups met only twice and have yet to make progress, the initiative holds promise. More than any other issue, the fate of the ongoing peace process will determine the future of Pak-Afghan relations. While Pakistan has been unable thus far to push the Taliban to hold direct talks with the Afghan government and agree to a ceasefire, it has not given up efforts to troubleshoot and keep the process afloat. Talks between the Taliban and the United States, meanwhile, have made some progress. Though the intra-Afghan meeting in Qatar was cancelled after the Taliban objected to the long list of Afghan delegates, it is likely that this will eventually be held. If it goes through, this could be a breakthrough in the long and bumpy road to peace.

Zahid Hussain, Senior Fellow Jinnah Institute

The cancellation of a first round of intra-Afghan talks has dealt a blow to the efforts to end Afghan war. The talks, scheduled for April 19 in Doha, were considered initially to be a significant step in the Afghan peace process. But the Afghan Taliban called off the meeting after the Kabul government named a 250 member-delegation, saying that no meaningful negotiations could take place with such a large pool of participants. Earlier this year, the Taliban and prominent Afghan representatives including former president Hamid Karzai met informally at a conference in Moscow, raising hopes of a breakthrough in intra-Afghan talks. The cancellation of an intra-Afghan dialogue is likely to affect progress in negotiations between the US and Taliban representatives. In what is being described as the most concrete step forward in the Afghan peace talks, the two sides have come close to a deal on a draft framework that could bring to an end America’s longest war. While major obstacles still persist, sustained negotiations between the two sides have paved the path to a final agreement on the withdrawal of American forces. America’s desperation to pull out is itself seen as a victory for the Taliban, who have gained greater international recognition over the years. This has fuelled apprehension among other Afghan groups both inside and outside government. With their battlefield victories and expanding territorial control, the insurgents have certainly gained the upper hand as the Afghan endgame edges closer. Recent large-scale attacks launched by the Taliban and targeting Afghan military personnel and installations have given the insurgents a further boost. There is no indication of fighters holding back until the Americans agree to a timeframe for complete troop withdrawal. To the contrary, expect an escalation vis-à-vis a Taliban military offensive in the spring. Put differently, it will be a fight-fight and talk-talk situation.

Sitara Noor, Security Analyst

After 17 years of incessant fighting and unrest, the stars seem to be aligning for peace in Afghanistan as evident by recent peace overtures. However, these developments are not without spoilers. Hopes for lasting peace have been marred by disunity and ad-hocism within both the Afghan government and the negotiation process on the one hand, and the Afghan Taliban’s hardened strategic edge over Washington and Kabul on the other. The recent deadlock over the issue of Kabul’s representation already indicates a potentially fatal delay in the dialogue process. Pakistan remains one of the important players in the Afghan endgame, a position finally acknowledged by the Trump administration that is now seeking Pakistan’s assistance in achieving a negotiated settlement of the Afghan war. While Pakistan should use its leverage to keep the Taliban at the negotiation table, it should continue to emphasise the need for an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process and let the primary parties take responsibility for the outcomes that follow. This is important for building confidence and addressing the strategic dissonance between Islamabad and Kabul. Unfortunately, the US approach is focused largely on conflict management wherein a temporary lull in the war might allow for a graceful exit. This approach, however, is ill suited to conflict transformation, which instead requires a more inclusive and long-term strategy that addresses the concerns of all stakeholders. The diverging priorities of the US, the Taliban and Kabul run the risk of jeopardising hard-won gains and reversing the entire process. To avoid another civil war, and to ensure a stable Afghanistan after a US withdrawal, it is important to establish an agreed framework of governance and an intra-Afghanistan reconciliation process that can bind disparate factions together.