The Long Walk to Dawn: Peace Processes and Afghanistan
Photo Credit: New York Times
By Chayanika Saxena

The Long Walk to Dawn: Peace Processes and Afghanistan

Dec. 14, 2018  |     |  0 comments

This must be the umpteenth time that a peace process has been initiated to restore peace and stability in Afghanistan. Given the deteriorating security situation there, the present efforts to arrive at a peace deal with the Taliban look more urgent than ever. However, much like the past, this time too we have too many cooks stirring the broth.

There are two major international peace efforts that are currently underway — the recently galvanized American push for peace led by Zalmay Khalilzad and the year-old Moscow-led consultations. In each case, the aim is to end the conflict in Afghanistan, but what drives them apart is on whose terms they would like the conflict to end. As rival powers, would the American and Russian paths ever meet to secure a peaceful future for Afghanistan? Time will tell. But till then, we can only hope that history does not repeat itself one more time.

Making America Exit. Again.

The US is aware of just how unwinnable the war is. And, now that the presence of America is becoming a popular eyesore, the Trump administration seems to be in the mood to draw the curtains. The exit is imminent; it is only to make it “honourable” that the American administration is interested in giving the peace process another chance. It is for this that a special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation has been appointed in the hope of bringing the conflict to that stage from where saying au revoir would not look defeatist for the US.

For a country that had once refused to talk to Taliban or include it in the post-2001 international arrangements, things seem to have come a full circle. Not only did the undiminishing power of the Taliban compel the US to facilitate the creation of an outpost for this group in Doha, but it also changed its narrative about it. Believing that it could bring the “good” Taliban on board, the US has been trying to coordinate with the group. The attempt all this while was to facilitate a discussion between the Afghan government and the Taliban indirectly. However, with Khalilzad, things have taken a direct turn.

Setting afoot as the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Khalilzad’s position in the administration is, perhaps, an attempt to reverse the disbanding of the office of the US Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan last year. His official induction with a special mandate was announced in a memo issued by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in September 2018. In this memo, the stability of Afghanistan was, once again, tied up with the security of America and concluded on an energetic note to “get the job done”.

Since then, Khalilzad has conducted a range of talks with different stakeholders — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Taliban, amongst others. Emerging from these are reports that suggest that the Special Representative is eager to deliver a peace deal in six months, i.e. by April/May 2019, which even the Taliban thinks is too short. Describing their talks with Khalilzad as preliminary, the Taliban denied having reached any agreement on “interim government, future president or elections” which were rumored to have been a part of the talks. The Taliban, however, have rejected Khalilzad’s call for a ceasefire.

Touring different countries in these months, Khalilzad’s revived push for peace has become the backdrop for many developments. For instance, his talks with the Taliban were preceded by the release of high-level Taliban prisoners, including the co-founder of the organization, Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Pakistan. The Afghan government, on its part too, has brought together a team of 12 members to lead the peace process from Afghanistan’s side. However, not everything has been as encouraging. The assassinations of Kandahar’s police chief Abdul Raziq and Maulana Sami-ul Haq, the so-called “father of the Taliban”; the fall of different towns and regional centers in Afghanistan to the Taliban; and the incessant decline in the security levels have shown that precious little has changed on the ground.

Russia Does a Bear Hug

Leading a multilateral process that is officially described as the “Moscow format consultations on Afghanistan”, the peace efforts galvanized by Russia have once again put the country in the orbit of importance vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Its stated purpose is to “coordinate the development of an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue towards promoting the process of national reconciliation and the restoration of peace as soon as possible in the long-suffering Afghan state”.

The origins of these consultations can be found in the trilateral discussions that were held between Moscow, Beijing, and Islamabad back in 2016. In the absence of any representation from Afghanistan, these discussions generated resentment and opposition particularly as the Russian dalliance with the Taliban was confirmed by its Ambassador to Kabul. Faced with opposition and an opportunity, Russia subsequently expanded the talks to 6 countries in February 2017 and opened it further to take the participation to 12 countries in April 2017.

The situation as it stands today still does not look “ready” for peace. The announcement of the Peace Road Map by the Ghani government was met with a series of bombings in different parts of Afghanistan.

Interestingly, it is one of the peace processes which have managed to get the Taliban to share the same table with Afghanistan to talk, if not agree, on things. The objective is to get different parties together under the same roof which has proven to be both ineffectual and difficult in the past. This is not to say that the Moscow-led process has managed to deliver anything concrete, however, it is not entirely insignificant for the geo-political weight it carries.

The most recent round of discussions under this format were conducted on November 9, 2018. Coming after some delays and setbacks stemming from Afghanistan’s initial refusal to participate in the talks, the latest edition went ahead with “official” and “unofficial” participation. While the government of Afghanistan still refused to take part in the talks, the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, led by the vice-chair Haji Din Mohammad, was present at the consultation as the country’s “national non-government” institution. The Taliban delegation of five were led by the head of the group’s political office in Doha, Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai. India too participated “unofficially” in the process while the Americans were there as observers.

The absence of a collective joint statement was made up for by individual testimonies about the process. Significant amongst these were the observations of the Taliban and the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, both of which in their respective statements stressed on the need for peace in order to secure the well-being of all Afghans. Their demands were different and so were their approaches.

As per the Taliban’s official website, the speech delivered by Stanikzai covered the following things: (i) the “causes of the ongoing miseries and conflicts in Afghanistan in the past four decades”; (ii) “obstacles to peace”; (iii) its position regarding some key issues like the Eid-ul Fitr ceasefire and women’s rights , and (iv) “the practical measures for the prevention of civilian casualties”. He also reiterated the key “prerequisites” that have to be met before the Taliban can be expected to walk the talk. The High Peace Council of Afghanistan is yet to provide an English translation of its official narrative on the Moscow consultation. However, overall, their emphasis has been on bringing an end to the conflict within the parameters of the existing constitution; an opinion that was reiterated by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Geneva Conference (November 27-28).

Where Does Kabul Stand in All This?

Convening in Geneva, the international donors participating in the reconstruction of Afghanistan heard Ashraf Ghani describe the roadmap for peace. His emphasis on gradual transition instead of a rushed-through peace deal was received variously. On the one hand, Ghani’s claim that peace would need another five years was interpreted as a couched way of his seeking another term as the President of Afghanistan. On the other, it was seen as a veiled attack of sorts on Khalilzad’s hasty attempt at brokering peace. However, in keeping with American demands, Ghani announced the constitution of a formal 12-member peace council that will undertake negotiations and discussions on behalf of the government.

Distinguishing between false and genuine urgency, Ghani suggested that the fundamental difference between them is at the pace at which it takes for there to be an impact on the outcomes achieved. “Hurried actions without direction, often organized around political timelines, boxes ticked without coherence”, according to Ghani, will lead the country nowhere. Instead, “a laser focused approach” that draws on “our past and the experiences of other societies” can help achieve “lasting peace”. Furthering the Kabul Process which was initiated a year ago, Ghani’s Peace Road Map stressed the need to ensure that the peace efforts are “owned” and “led” by Afghans. The role of international and regional stakeholders in this process will be essentially facilitative and complementary in Afghanistan’s pursuit of an “enduring and inclusive peace”.

Seeking to end the conflict in a phased manner, the road map looked like an address directed at the Taliban. The group, in its response, stated that for them, talking to “powerless and foreign imposed entities” is “a waste of time”. They did not mince words in calling the President “impotent” and someone who “forwarded proposals about negotiations that were beyond his capabilities”, and rejected the proposal to talk to the government of Afghanistan outright.

The situation as it stands today still does not look “ready” for peace. The announcement of the Peace Road Map by the Ghani government was met with a series of bombings in different parts of Afghanistan, including an attack by the Taliban on the compound of the British security company, G4S. The Taliban, buoyed by its recent ambush of Afghan and international security forces, have claimed that the world understands that “more than half of Afghanistan” is “under their control”. The purpose behind their need to have a hold over territory is to give themselves an upper hand in the negotiations, which they too know to be imminent. However, what is not known — much to the disappointment of Ghani who has often claimed that the peace process is now a matter of “when” — is when this “when” will arrive. The journey to the much-awaited dawn still appears to be long.

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