The Afghan peace process has entered a new – perhaps the decisive – phase as the United States has offered to hold direct talks with the Taliban, for which the latter were waiting and had been pressing since long. Although the United States has been involved in negotiations since their efforts at making peace with the Taliban began in 2005, these involvements had been covert and out of the press or public eye. Major stakeholders in this process of dialogue to foster peace in Afghanistan have always been the Afghan government, Pakistan, the Taliban and China, as well as other neighbouring countries including, especially Russia and Iran, besides the United States and a few allied European countries. Strenuous efforts on the part of some of these countries remained successful in bringing a short-term ceasefire during three days of Eid-ul-Fitr. Along with some other prominent reasons, keeping in view the elusive, resilient nature of Taliban as well as their unclear line of command, peace talks with them have been consistently derailed in the past.
Recent announcement by the Trump administration that the US is ready to engage in direct peace talks with the Taliban has opened a new chapter in efforts to bring peace in Afghanistan. It was a principal demand of Taliban that they would talk directly with the US because it was the US that toppled their government in 2001 only to be replaced by a puppet regime in Kabul. Afghan government had, in the past, insisted that Taliban must talk only to them but the Taliban paid no heed and spurned such offers, terming the government in Kabul a puppet of the USA.
The Taliban and the people representing this organization at present are apparently completely different from the ones in the latter half of the 1990s. During the US-led war on terror in Afghanistan, most of the Taliban leaders have been killed through different means. Most of them, especially those having genuine patriotism for Afghanistan have been either eliminated or detained, and here arises the million-dollar question: what will be composition of the Taliban team in the peace process? Although there are a few teams of the Taliban leadership currently existing under the names of ‘Quetta Shura’, ‘Peshawar Shura’ and ‘Qatar Political Office of Afghan Taliban’, it remains unclear which one of them has more leverage on Taliban fighters in Afghanistan because on many occasions, different groups have refused to accept the authority of representatives for negotiations.
A show of unity of command was at play during the Eid-ul-Fitr when both Afghan government and the Taliban agreed to a three-day ceasefire. But, in the backdrop of repeated failure of peace efforts during the last eighteen years – owing to meddling of neighbouring countries’ intelligence agencies – it is unclear whether the entire insurgency is supported and structured in one shape, or they might fall in pieces in the event certain demands of countries having vested interests are not met. Those Taliban leaders, who were brought to Qatar in 2013 to open a currently-defunct political office there, are almost out of touch and not aligned with the present Taliban militant wing’s command and control structure and political organization, as they have been confined to different geographical locations. It happened also because of operational changes inside the Taliban military campaigns. For example, Taliban fighters were under a central command during the first decade of their campaign against Afghan government and international forces, but starting in 2014, Taliban military tactics and their operational organization has been decentralized. In order to make sure that their campaigns move forward, the military commanders have been given free hand to decide and operate at their will. These changes along with the newly emerged leaders in the insurgents’ ranks pose considerable challenges to the stakeholders to initiate a comprehensive, inclusive and productive peace process.
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There are vested interests involved and forces at play to engage the United States in Afghan Taliban peace talks publicly. While legitimate concerns and interests of stakeholder countries can be accommodated, it is highly advisable for the US to be watchful about the designs, plans, undercurrents and agendas of the neighbouring and other states in the process of upcoming peace talks. Meanwhile, when making strategies for bringing Taliban to the negotiating table, Pakistan and its legitimate interests should not be ignored. When the US, China, Russia and all other major world powers guarantee a peace deal and ensure safety and prosperity of Pakistan with a peaceful and stable Afghanistan in its neighbourhood, there will not be worries for Pakistan.
The people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, being tormented by an insecure and unclear political scenario will welcome all efforts aimed at restoring peace in Afghanistan. But keeping in view the immense stakes and interests of Pakistan in the affairs of Afghanistan, which has the longest border (more than 2000 miles) with the former, the whole process and related efforts by major stakeholders who genuinely want to bring peace in Afghanistan become futile and wide of the mark sans Pakistan’s participation. To cut the long story short, it is pertinent to suggest that this new initiative by the US should keep the concerns of Pakistan at the very top of their agenda. The people and the Government of Afghanistan have verbally proven that all neighbours – including Pakistan – will not host elements hostile to them in any viable political and economic setup in Afghanistan.
The current peace talks are pivotal and require all parties to get earnestly involved in a balanced, all-inclusive and stable peace deal so that the entire region may take a sigh of relief and peace prevails. The United States should be sincere, honest and straightforward while discussing peace with the Taliban. Any mishap in the form of trust deficit, or any other occurrence from both sides, can cause irreparable loss to this last ray of hope of restoring peace in Afghanistan. The United States and the Taliban should present to guarantors their deeds and agreements, thus making it more viable and trustable. The new turn in this process should be considered a blessing in disguise and an opportunity within a crisis to remove all the past strains and move forward with a new vigour and zeal with an aim to achieve the desired target of restoring peace in the war-ravaged Afghanistan.