Developments in Afghanistan – 4

Spearhead Analysis – 21.12.2018

By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Recently US officials and members of Taliban engaged in a round of talks- in UAE. Reportedly, this is the third time that Zalmay Khalilzad met with Taliban representatives. One of Taliban’s core demand has been direct engagement with US officials- the recent initiatives are viewed as efforts by US to devise a political solution in Afghanistan and preserve some gains. It was also reported that US and Taliban have discussed proposals for a six-month ceasefire in Afghanistan and a future withdrawal of foreign troops. According to Taliban spokesperson- Zabihullah Mujahid “Discussions are taking place with the representatives of the United States about ending the occupation, a matter that does not concern the Kabul administration. “The entire agenda is focused on issues concerning the occupiers and talks will exclusively be held with them.” There is a perception that there is an urgency to reach some form of a settlement with the Afghan Taliban before the upcoming elections in Afghanistan. The United States says the aim of the talks is to facilitate an Afghan-led process and the inclusion of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan in the talks.

The Afghan government on its part has also proposed its version of the peace plan. According to Thomas Rutting President Ashraf Ghani’s new peace plan- presented at the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan on 28 November 2018- foresees a five-phase approach to consultations and five years of implementation. Ghani’s Geneva peace proposals are not called a new plan, but rather a “new chapter” to an existing one. The plan’s main content entails: five “phases” of consultations with various domestic and international actors involved in the current war, both or either militarily and politically; and a five-year implementation period. It also prominently speaks about the relationship between a peace process and the April 2019 Afghan presidential elections. Part of this equation is that the US – as Khalilzad confirmed in his 28 November 2018 radio interview already quoted above – is “in a hurry” for peace in Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump earlier this month wrote a formal letter to Khan asking for his help to bring the Taliban to the table for negotiations. A day later, Khalilzad visited Islamabad where he met with PM Khan and General Bajwa. Ambassador Khalilzad travelled to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Belgium, UAE and Qatar- as part of efforts to reach some consensus on a way forward in Afghanistan.

The United States said it welcomes actions Pakistan is taking to promote a negotiated solution to the war in Afghanistan. The acknowledgement came a day after Prime Minister Imran Khan announced Pakistan has arranged another round of Washington’s peace talk with the Afghan Taliban- which were held on the 17th of December.

Officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan and China also met in Kabul earlier in December to discuss trade, development and solutions to end the conflicts and to put into effect a memorandum of understanding on security cooperation and support for Afghanistan’s efforts to open talks with the Taliban. At the culmination of the talks in Kabul -Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Islamabad wanted a fresh start in its relationship with Afghanistan. Whereas, China sees an end to the war as critical to its “One Belt, One Road” policy of expanding trade links across Asia.

The search for an endgame in Afghanistan has escalated in the recent past– the perception is that most regional players and the US want the fighting to stop– but the divergent means are yet to be harmonized amongst various players.

The general perception amongst key US officials is that Pakistan is an integral part of the equation to end the conflict. For that end, it isbelieved that US is using a sticks and carrot approache towards Pakistan. The US stick approach towards Pakistan is primarily seen from the economic aspect. Prior to Ambassador Khalilzad’s visit- US blacklisted Pakistan for religious intolerance. The State Department announced they won’t impose sanctions on Pakistan, even though being blacklisted can invite such penalties. According to Micheal Kugelman the timings of this move by the US may be poor especially since the announcement came just weeks after Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, for blasphemy charges. And it came just days after officials announced terrorism and sedition charges for Khadim Rizvi. The Kartarpur corridor was also opened to cater to the Sikh community.

He added that If Washington thinks shaming Pakistan for religious freedom violations will compel it to magically engineer a dramatic shift, then it’s sorely mistaken. At a moment when the White House has never been more eager to get Pakistan’s help in bringing reconcilable Taliban representatives to the negotiating table, penalising Pakistan will make the trust necessary for such cooperation even tougher to secure. Whereas, for Pakistan, the challenge remains the same: furthering the prospects of a political settlement in Afghanistan with the Taliban, while seeking the Afghan government’s cooperation to help end anti-Pakistan militant sanctuaries across the border.

The recent movement in efforts to forge some form of dialogue amongst warring parties is a positive indictor- but the resultant sustainable peace would remain a work in progress in the foreseeable future. It remains to be seen what form of a political representation would be offered to the Afghan Taliban prior to the upcoming Afghan elections- keeping in view that the Taliban controls a significant portion of territory in Afghanistan. The Afghan government along with assistance of bigger powers may need to shift focus on strengthening the core institutions of Afghanistan. Recently, Lt Gen Kenneth F. McKenzie, the next commander of the US Central Command, said at his confirmation hearing that the death toll of Afghan security forces was unsustainable and that’s why a peace deal was needed. Adding that “Pakistan knows very clearly that their assistance will be required to reach an end state in Afghanistan. I think the task that we have is to make it attractive to them so that they see that it is in their best interests to do that”.  The US may also need to keep in view the vital interests of key regional players and also explore its own opportunities via regional development initiatives.

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