Written By: Hasan Khan
At Kabul Process II on February 28, President Dr. Ashraf Ghani unveiled an unprecedented ‘peace plan’ inviting Taliban to direct peace talks with Kabul government to draw a comprehensive peace strategy and end one of theworld’s most ‘intractable’ wars.
“We are making this offer without preconditions in order to lead to a peace agreement,” the President told international participants of KP-II.
“Taliban are expected to give input to the peace-making process, the goal of which is to draw the Taliban as an organization to peace talks.”
President Ghani’s peace initiative is dubbed by many as a ‘bold initiative.’ For the first time Kabul administration accepted Taliban militia–hitherto labelled as ‘foreign sponsored terrorists’–as a political force (inviting them) to open political offices anywhere in Afghanistan including Kabul.
The new peace initiative also attracted admiration and support from regional and international stakeholders of the conflict. Even cynics started believing President Ghani’s unconditional offer for peace talks coupled with delisting names of certain militia leaders from UN terror-watch lists, releasing of prisoners, offering passport, travel and offices facilities would render the insurgents change their hard position on negotiating peace directly with Afghan government.
It will be too cynical to appear disappointed at this stage. However, it seemed evident that Taliban leadership is deliberately downplaying the President’s talk offer by not responding to the same even after passage of weeks.
Taliban have so far avoided responding directly to Dr. Ghani’s peace plan, however, their lack of interest in talking to Kabul is obvious from the militia’s spokesman response as a reply to an ‘open letter’ published in New Yorker magazine written by Barnett Rubin–a leading expert on Afghanistan and South Asia–who urged Taliban to accept talks with Kabul government.
“Our country has been occupied, which has led to an American-style supposed Afghan government being imposed upon us… And your view that we talk to them and accept their legitimacy is the same formula adopted by America to win the war,” Taliban response said, adding the Kabul Process was simply aimed at seeking the “surrender” of Taliban militia.
The militia leadership still believe Americans have occupied Afghanistan and the Kabul government is a puppet government imposed over the Afghans. Instead of talking to what they believed is ‘the puppet Kabul regime,’ they wanted to talk directly with the U.S.
In a statement issued days after unveiling Ghani’s peace proposal, Taliban had asked the U.S. to talk directly to the militia’s political office in Qatar, and not negotiate through the Afghan government.
“You [U.S. administration] know how to reach us through our office in Doha,” a Taliban media operator in a tweet message told the U.S. administration and added, “Let us [Taliban] know when you’re ready to talk to discuss your exit… Soon is better before it becomes very ugly for you in Afghanistan.”
They also wrote an ‘open letter’ to American people, urging them to put pressure on President Trump and U.S. military to stop war in Afghanistan and start negotiations.
For Taliban trusting the Afghan government leadership is also a major issue. They knew the Kabul regime is not independent in taking decisions vis- à-vis peace.
In the last week of January–by which President Ghani would have finalized this ‘new peace initiative to be unveiled at KP-II’ after consultations with Afghans–a statement from the President office ruled out any sitting for peace talks with Taliban. This statement was a follow up of U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement of ‘no talks for peace with Afghan Taliban for the time being’ following deadly terror attacks in January in Kabul.
“[The] Taliban have crossed a red line and lost the chance for peace… we have to look for peace on the battlefield. They have to be marginalized,” Afghan President Ghani’s office issued this statement. Before this statement of the U.S. President on January 29 said, “I don’t think we’re prepared to talk right now… They’re killing people left and right. Innocent people are being killed left and right.”
On the other hand the growing impression in Kabul is that by announcing the new peace initiative Dr. Ghani seemed to be in full command of the situation and is re-enacting the successful model of Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin Hekmatyar episode with Taliban.
The new initiative–which many believed is a comprehensive one–has also dispelled the impression that [though] Afghan government leaders are lacking a workable peace strategy. According to political commentators Dr. Ghani has thrown the ball in the Taliban’s court and the insurgents must respond positively. Pressure might be increased on Taliban leadership as the new peace initiative has overwhelming support of Afghans from across the ethnic and political divides.
The reason for widespread support and acceptance lies in the action prior to formulating the comprehensive package by President Ghani and his government’s chief executive Dr. Abdullah as they had long deliberated and held consultations with political leaders, members of civil society, religious figures, women and youth leaders from across the country.
But, is there any attraction for the insurgents to jump the bandwagon of Dr. Ghani and, that too, at a time when Ghani’s regime is fast losing control over more and more territories and shrinking to major population centers only? Kabul government is practically dysfunctional with its authority eroded by the increasing ethnic tensions, resurgent warlords and endemic corruption.
This situation is further worsened by the phenomenal increase in the civilians’ casualties both in the rising Taliban attacks in urban localities and U.S. airstrikes in rural areas.
The prevailing perception is that the government made the unconditional offer of peace negotiations to the Taliban under duress. And it’s highly unlikely that Taliban leadership will accept the peace offer in a situation when the militia is gaining more and more strength and influence.
Going by the surveys of western sources including SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) and BBC the militia has phenomenally increased territories under sway to over 50%.
BBC study shows Taliban are in full control of 14 districts and have an active and open physical presence in a further 263, significantly higher than previous estimates of Taliban strength. The Afghan government has full control over merely 30% of country and about 15 million people–half of Afghanistan’s population–are living in areas that are either controlled by Taliban or where the militia is openly present and regularly mounts attacks, as per the report.
SIGAR–U.S.’ main watchdog in Afghanistan–in its report submitted to Congress in February, claimed Afghan government has control over only 57% of its territory leaving 43% to Taliban insurgents. A year earlier government was in full control of 72 percent of the country.
This is coupled with another very important development. Historically, Taliban used to increase territorial influence in summer. But shrunk back to mountains and rural areas in severe cold winter losing control over territories, particularly in the northern regions. This winter the Taliban not only continued holding more and more areas in the north, center and west of Afghanistan but also continued hitting the country with widespread deadly attacks.
Holding more territories throughout the year means Taliban have the luxury of now recruiting more fighters and extending their fights to areas which are under government control and thus can further dent Kabul regime in the eyes of Afghans.
A senior Pakistani military leader recently shared that under emerging possibilities of peace, Pakistan is using its maximum leverage on Afghan Taliban to negotiate with Kabul. Pakistan through border control mechanism and strict watch over Afghan refugee camps has been able to curb the cross-border movement as well as use of other facilities like medical etc. in Pakistan. In this backdrop, recent peace signals by Taliban should be tseen in this context. However, Pakistani military leader has also maintained that Pakistan does not have much leverage and Afghans fighting on their soil are an independent entity. It is time for others to understand Pakistan’s limitations and view us pragmatically. It is encouraging that like Pakistan, other important regional countries Iran, China and Russia are also encouraging the militia leadership to resolve the conflict through table talks.
In their open letter to American people, Taliban said that their preference is to solve the Afghan issue through peaceful dialogues. In Herat when work on Afghan section of a $10 billion gas pipeline linking Turkmenistan, Pakistan and India started, Taliban declared support for the pipeline and other infrastructure projects that could benefit Afghans.
The writer is a senior journalist, analyst and anchorperson at a private TV channel.