There are two ways of looking at time. While according to one approach no two moments can ever be alike, per the other past never ceases to be the present and, hence, the future. Despite their divergences, both these ways of seeing agree on one thing, and which is that time moves. But in a time-warped Afghanistan, things appear to be as stuck as they were back in 2011 or as further back in 2001 when the search for peace began.
We are in the year 2019 and the negotiations to negotiate the end of the conflict in Afghanistan have once again been halted by different parties who do not want to see eye-to-eye. The recent cancellation of the Doha Conference, which could have brought those in the government to the same table as the Taliban, speaks volumes about the discord that prevails over how to end the conflict-induced suffering in Afghanistan. The problem is not just the absence of a common vision but the presence of many eyes that see differently. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that some of the stakeholders may not be even interested in peace, to begin with. Given these circumstances, it seems time has come to a standstill in Afghanistan yet again.
Writing in 2011, Nushin Arbabzadah in her book called Afghan Rumor Bazaar was giving a peep into the social and cultural lives of the ordinary Afghans to tell the initiated and uninitiated readers about how Afghans “understand their personal truths” in a country where truth itself has become “ghostlike”. While much of her work was on the proclivities of the “common man”, who, she observes, is not only opinionated but is ever-ready to sermonize, her book also provided glimpses of the political drama that was unfolding back then. The Taliban was brutally effective in hampering whatever progress Afghanistan was making as a new democratic society; the Americans, then under President Barack Obama, were all eager to cut a deal with this notorious group; political corruption was rampant while the socio-economic conditions on the grounds were starting to show signs of fatigue. The script does not read any different today; only some characters have changed. Or maybe, not.
The Man of the Many Deals
Zalmay Khalilzad, who is today the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, has been on the bloc for decades. In fact, rumors were and are still abound about his vested interest in remaining at the forefront of the current negotiations, much like those in the past, in the hope of becoming the President of Afghanistan one day. The current National Security Advisor of Afghanistan, Hamdullah Mohib, is equally apprehensive about the “alienating” deal that Khalilzad is trying to cut and went on record to say: “people in government think perhaps all this talk is to create a caretaker government of which he will then become the viceroy”. While rumors are hardly, if ever, reliable, Khalilzad’s professional history has not done much to dismiss these murmurs either.
The Taliban has announced the commencement of its annual spring offensive called “Al-Fatah” (The Victory), the Ghani-led administration has begun Operation Khalid. These developments are unlikely to contribute to peace, let alone help Afghanistan negotiate to negotiate.
Afghanistan’s a country of oral culture; we are people of poets and balladeers, notes Arbabzadah. Discounting the distortions and exaggerations that come with tales, legends and fables, it is the importance of socio-historical memory that is of relevance here. In fact, writing on this, Rubin had poignantly observed that while “in Washington, memory is four years long, in Kabul it runs far deeper”. And it is this memory that is making people and the government suspicious of Khalilzad. Right from (effectively) sabotaging the return of Zahir Shah as the political leader of Afghanistan in 2001 to his purported negotiations with then President Hamid Karzai to be made (an unaccountable) Prime Minister of Afghanistan in 2009 to his successive engagements with the Taliban since 1990s, Khalilzad has a chequered past that does not make him entirely reliable. His rush to conclude a peace deal before the July 2020 Presidential elections seems to be heading in the same direction that Mohib has warned against — a caretaker or an interim government in which Khalilzad may or may not have a role. But, the odds are that he will.
Settling for a Political Settlement?
If negotiations at the top do not come easy, the masses of Afghanistan too are a divided lot. In his political-ethnographic work on the different shapes that the political settlement can take in Afghanistan, Sadr notes that views on the ground diverge. The questions about the overall validity of the peace talks with the Taliban notwithstanding, the prospects of having an interim government take over the peace process after the (impending and agreed upon) American withdrawal have generated their own socio-political concerns. Moreover, as Sadr observes the political models that were adopted elsewhere, i.e. in other contexts witnessing conflicts, were either limited or had broken down or that they might not be entirely conducive for Afghanistan.
The two regional players invested in the peace process too do not speak in the same language in this regard. While Pakistan appears to be batting for an interim government, its regional rival, India, has warned against it. In tune with the central administration in Kabul, India is said to have informed Khalilzad that the peace process should be mindful of the “political and constitutional structure” of Afghanistan and that an interim government will be entirely unconstitutional in this regard. Going a step forward, India had also reportedly reminded the US Special Representative that it is the “only country” that has contributed enormously to infrastructural assets in Afghanistan and that the continuation of its economic largesse will be contingent upon “how the situation evolves in Afghanistan”. Given that the American President has been asking other countries to step-up, this conditions-based approach of India could make him rethink. Interestingly, however, India’s current opposition to an interim government in Afghanistan stands in contrast to the position it had taken in 1989 when it, along with Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, was reported to have been persuading “Zahir Shah to return as head of a neutral, possible interim, administration in Kabul”. In India’s defense, time was different back then. Or was it? The compulsions today appear to be just the same.
Running on a Treadmill
The peace process in Afghanistan reminds me of running on a treadmill — you know you are running but you are literally going nowhere; in fact, you stop where you start. In the last eighteen years, the situation in Afghanistan has remained as tenuous as it had been in the three decades that preceded them. While the country and its people have witnessed progress — for instance, Afghanistan has fared better than its neighbors on the Press Freedom Index — but as Brinkley observes in his article “Money Pit: The Monstrous Failure of US Aid to Afghanistan”, much of this visible growth is restricted to a few places and becomes a cause of (over) celebration because of a lower baseline for comparison. This relative growth in almost every sector would not look all that great in absolute numbers. In fact, in the last few years, particularly since the American drawdown in 2014, one of the few things that have registered an upward trend has been the civilian casualty record.
A major blast that ripped through the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology on April 20, 2019 is a grim reminder of how the current peace negotiations have failed to bring peace to Afghanistan once again. As of now, the intra-Afghan dialogue that was supposed to take place in Doha on April 20-21 has been suspended for an indefinite period of time. The reason behind the calling-off of talks was apparently the size and composition of the Afghan delegation which, on the last count, stood at 250. But it would be too naïve to believe that the talks were suspended because of the numbers alone; the optics involved in the process had a role to play too. Where the Government of Afghanistan had been consciously interpreting this meeting as a face-to-face encounter between it and the insurgent group, the Taliban treated it as just another intra-Afghan dialogue where people were to participate in a personal capacity. That the various Afghan governments have resolutely sought a place for themselves in the different peace negotiations and that the Taliban has refused to talk to the “weak, illegitimate and impotent regimes” are two positions that need to be reconciled for things to actually progress.
As of now, both the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan have dug in their heels and initiated their own military routines. Where the Taliban has announced the commencement of its annual spring offensive called “Al-Fatah” (The Victory), the Ghani-led administration has begun Operation Khalid. These developments are unlikely to contribute to peace, let alone help Afghanistan negotiate to negotiate.