After 18 years of military occupation, the United States appears to be serious about withdrawing from Afghanistan, a country which is known as the graveyard of invaders. In the past, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Great Britain, the imperial Russia and the Soviet Union all failed in Afghanistan.
Multiple peace processes are now in operation, some open and some secret, and they pose different challenges to Afghanistan’s neighbours.
At present, for talks with the United States, a Taliban delegation is in Doha, the capital of Qatar, which is playing an image-boosting facilitator role. After days of talks, both the US and the Taliban delegations have expressed hope that they could map out a framework for peace.
A US State Department Spokesman on Tuesday said talks continued on a daily basis and progress was being made.
He said the two sides were focusing on four interconnected issues that could compose any future agreement -- delisting the Taliban as a terrorist group, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue and a ceasefire.
In Iowa on Monday, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he might go to Doha in the coming weeks to take the peace talks to the next level.
“I have a team on the ground right now trying to negotiate with the Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan, trying to find a way to achieve an Afghanistan that’s not at war, that’s not engaged in violence, that doesn’t present a threat to the United States, that will respect the fundamental basic rights for every Afghan citizen—women, children—across the full spectrum,” he told a farmers’ meeting.
Though it is still too early to say whether the Doha talks will end the war in Afghanistan, several peace moves are converging on one point. The chances of a positive outcome are much greater this time than in any previous peace move, especially with US President Donald Trump being serious about the withdrawal, though in the initial months of his presidency he sent more troops to Afghanistan. Another positive factor is that the new Taliban leaders, who took over after the deaths of Mullah Omar and Mullah Mansoor, were less rigid.
In a significant give-away or something for the American delegation to show their people, the Taliban team has assured the US delegation led by Zalmay Khalilizad that no foreign terrorist organisation will be allowed to operate in Afghanistan.
The ongoing Doha talks had a precedent in the 2013 Doha talks which collapsed after a diplomatic spat over the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, a move that made the then Afghan government of Hamid Karzai angry.
In recent months, China, Russia and Pakistan have redoubled their efforts to end the Afghan conflict to achieve their national interest goals.
Both Pakistan and China wish for peace in the region to implement the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key component of China’s Belt-and-Road initiative, and reap its benefits. The US$ 60 billion CPEC project is China’s biggest ever overseas investment.
Pakistan’s main worry in Afghanistan is India. It accuses India of setting up consulate offices in Afghanistan to spy on Pakistan and carry out acts of sabotage. The Afghan governments since the invasion, have, while being close to India, accused Pakistan of fermenting troubles in Afghanistan. If peace returns to Afghanistan, Pakistan could hope that a Taliban-led government would be friendlier towards Pakistan than India. Many analysts believe that Pakistan’s intelligence outfit Inter-Service-Intelligence (ISI) has some control over the Taliban.
From a military point of view, China, Russia and Iran will be happy to see the back of the US troops.
For Iran, a US withdrawal from Afghanistan, on the one hand, will be a relief as it will mean an elimination of the possibility of a US military invasion from its eastern border. On the other hand, it has fears that a Taliban-led government could develop links with Sunni terrorist groups operating in Iran’s Baluchistan region and create problems in the Shiite majority country.
Russia considers Central Asia as its own backyard and any US military presence in Afghanistan as a security threat. Another concern for Russia is the export of extremist Islamic ideology from Afghanistan to its Muslim-dominated regions and also Central Asia. A third Russian concern is the opium trade. Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s opium, and the world’s biggest market for heroin is Russia, which sees an estimated 30,000 people dying of drug abuse annually. About 70 tons of Afghan heroin, with a street value of US$ 13 billion, are consumed in Russia every year, according to UN figures.
Russia wonders whether the US failure to destroy Afghanistan’s opium fields is a deliberate strategy to destabilise Russia.
To address these concerns, Russia has intensified its own peace process. Last month, Afghan political figures held talks with Taliban representatives in Moscow. As part of a move to draw the Taliban into the peace process, both the Doha and Moscow initiatives have left out the Afghan government. The two-day Moscow conference brought the Taliban and prominent Afghan politicians face to face for the first time since the US invasion. To end the war, the participants agreed on a broad road map structured on two conditions – the US withdrawal and the Taliban’s commitment to citizens’ fundamental rights.
Although the Afghan government has not been invited to the Moscow and Doha talks, Kabul has tried its own peace moves with the Taliban, which control some 60 percent of the country and which does not recognise the legitimacy of the Kabul government. In February last year President Ashraf Ghani invited the rebels for unconditional talks. But the Taliban responded by intensifying its campaign of violence.
Even the latest peace initiative is marred by continuing violence. On Wednesday 16 Afghans were killed in a suicide blast and yesterday a political meeting attended by Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah came under a rocket attack. The Taliban has denied responsibility for both the attacks.
This shifts the blame to groups such as ISIS, which is operating in Afghanistan in pockets. The Taliban has also fought pitched battles with the ISIS.
Most Afghans want peace. The country has been deeply divided along ethnic lines, with the Taliban deriving its strength from the majority Pashtun tribe, which itself is divided into Parcham and Khalq factions. Then, there are the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, the Hazaras and others. The country’s socio-political structure is still largely tribal. The traditional Loya Jirga or the elders’ assembly still has its place in society when dealing with major issues. For any peace process to succeed, it needs to recognize and include both the traditional and the modern political institutions. Democracy needs to be defined in a language and form that the Afghans will understand.