Things have come virtually full circle in Afghanistan. Nineteen years ago, on 9/11, an outrageous terrorist attack took place in the US that would lead to the ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan; Nineteen years later, almost to the day – on 9/12 – another event has occurred – the intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha to decide the future of Afghanistan – that is likely to pave the way for the return of Taliban to power in Kabul. While it took just under two months after 9/11 to topple the Taliban regime, some Afghan officials
believe a similar time-frame is now being envisaged to try and seal a deal that will make the Taliban top-dogs in Afghanistan before the US elections in November.
A two month timeframe to strike a peace deal is probably as unrealistic as the expectations that there will actually be a deal that will usher in an era of peace in a country that has seen relentless violence and bloodshed for over forty years now. The manner in which events have unfolded over the last two years when the US doubled down on getting Taliban on board for ‘peace talks’ suggests that one of three things is going to come out of these negotiations: one, all sides will make major compromises on their stands and reach some middle ground which will bring lasting peace to Afghanistan; two, each side will try and hold on the its maximalist stand and the talks will either collapse or will drag on as will the conflict and bloodletting on ground until one or the other side loses; and three, one side capitulates and makes all the concessions to the other side.
Even if by some miracle, or if you will sleight of hand, some agreement is reached or even rammed through, there is no guarantee that it will be durable. Nor is there any surety that it will be enforceable. Often enough in Afghanistan, agreements have been observed more in their violation. This is because while it is easy to get people to sign on the dotted line, getting them to observe such agreements is quite another matter, especially if it involves significant compromises from one or the other side. Therefore, chances of all sides making significant compromises to reach a settlement that everyone will scrupulously adhere to is a bit of a pie in the sky.
The other two options – conflict and/or capitulation – are more likely outcomes of these talks. As things stand, it appears unlikely that the Taliban will be making the compromises or concessions. There is a good reason for this. Regardless of inane statements
like “solutions will not be found on the battlefield”, the fact of the matter is that the talks currently underway are the result of Taliban ascendancy on the battlefield. The UN, US and everyone else can stay in denial as much as they want, but the Taliban know they have forced the other side to sue for peace after tiring them out – militarily, economically and psychologically. In the last two years that the US has been pushing to get a peace deal with the Taliban, only one side has given almost no concession - the Taliban.
The UN, US and everyone else can stay in denial as much as they want, but the Taliban know they have forced the other side to sue for peace after tiring them out – militarily, economically and psychologically
Whether it is accepting a ceasefire, or making a clean break in its relationship with Al Qaeda and other international and regional Islamist terror groups, or diluting its puritanical, even medieval, interpretation of Islam, or accepting Afghan constitution and republic, the Taliban have stuck to their guns. In other words, the Taliban have remained steadfast on their hard-line stance on a range of contentious issues. Despite this, the international community is feeling a little enthused and encouraged by the commencement of the intra-Afghan dialogue. But this is at best self-deception emanating from both battle fatigue and a tearing hurry to exit Afghanistan. The only flexibility that Taliban have shown is in using language that injects enough ambiguity in their conversation so that their interlocutors from the international community can interpret and spin it in whatever way and direction they find convenient.
Scepticism about the peace talks leading to some kind of equitable power sharing arrangement is also quite natural given that the talks table is heavily loaded in favour of the Taliban. The Taliban form one side, and all other Afghans – the government, opposition, civil society groups etc. – form the other side. The Afghan government has been virtually reduced to being just another faction rather than the principal party in the negotiations. Worse, it has been pressured to make all the concessions sought by the Taliban to pave the way for the talks. Although the Afghan government did attempt to improve its negotiating position – for instance, by holding out on the issue of prisoner exchange – the obduracy of the Taliban, the lack of cohesion in the ranks of the anti-Taliban forces, and the tearing hurry of the US to cut a deal and run, left it with no choice but to let go of all leverages and enter the talks in from a position of weakness. The weakness of the non-Taliban side is also reflected in the fact that the military momentum is with the Taliban, they are being perceived as the victors, and most of all, the Americans and their allies are no longer putting their weight behind them in the intra-Afghan talks.
The weakness of the non-Taliban side is also reflected in the fact that the military momentum is with the Taliban, they are being perceived as the victors, and most of all, the Americans and their allies are no longer putting their weight behind them in the intra-Afghan talks
At the inauguration ceremony of the intra-Afghan talks, the Taliban put forward a reasonable face. In his speech
, the Taliban deputy Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar underscored the need “for the other side” to fulfil their commitments under the Doha Agreement
signed between the US and Taliban February last. He admitted that the negotiations would be difficult but assured that the Taliban would proceed with sincerity and “strive to our utmost ability in order for the intra-Afghan negotiations to attain a successful outcome”. According to Baradar, the Taliban objective was “an Afghanistan that is independent, sovereign, united, developed and free – an Afghanistan with an Islamic system in which all people of the nation can participate without discrimination and live harmoniously with each other in an atmosphere of brotherhood”.
Stirring words, no doubt, but the devil is always going to be in the details – what sort of a political dispensation will the Taliban want? How will the concept of Islamic Emirate headed by an Emir-ul-Momineen (leader of the faithful) reconcile and coexist with an Islamic Republic headed by an elected president and a parliament? Will democracy be the norm or will there be some other political system that will prevail? What will be the state of women, religious minorities, and other groups in the new dispensation? There is as yet no clarity of what the Taliban position is going to be on these monumental issues. Whatever evidence is available on ground suggests that the Taliban haven’t really changed their stance on many of these issues. They might say things to beguile the international community but once in power, they will pretty much want to drag Afghanistan back to the Middle Ages, if not the Dark Ages. This means that unless all the non-Taliban forces agree to capitulate, conflict will continue in one form or another.
The US is of course all set to wash its hands off the entire Afghan affair. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo can “dare to hope”
that the “momentous occasion” will “chart a new course” for Afghanistan, but it is unlikely that his government will intervene or object if this new course reverses whatever good has come in Afghanistan in the last two decades. He hinted as much when he said that the choice of political system is for the Afghans to make, and while the US believes democracy works best, it won’t “impose its system on others”. From a point when the US made acceptance of Afghan constitution a pre-condition, and later an outcome of any negotiated settlement, to now when it no longer feels it necessary to root for democracy in Afghanistan, just shows the gains made by the Taliban in enforcing their will.
As of now, India appears to be the only major partner of Afghanistan which hasn’t yet tilted in favour of the medieval Taliban. In his remarks at the inauguration ceremony, External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar enunciated India's stand
that “peace process must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled, has to respect the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan and preserve the progress made in the establishment of a democratic Islamic Republic in Afghanistan. The interests of minorities, women and vulnerable sections of society must be preserved and the issue of violence across the country and its neighbourhood has to be effectively addressed”. The problem is that there isn’t a whole lot India can do to preserve the current dispensation. India’s pretensions of being an emerging power aside, there are serious capacity and capability issues that bedevil India's ability to back the Afghan government. While India can provide some economic and military assistance, this can at best be on the margins, and will not be substantial enough to substitute the assistance and support that the US gives to prop up the Afghan state.
As of now, India appears to be the only major partner of Afghanistan which hasn’t yet tilted in favour of the medieval Taliban
India could of course hold her nose and reconcile to dealing with the Taliban if that is the outcome of the intra-Afghan talks. But even that will be possible only after the Taliban rid themselves of being puppets on the strings pulled by Pakistan. In the meanwhile, India needs to gird herself for the fallout of a capture of Afghanistan by the Taliban.
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