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Will peace ever return to Afghanistan?

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on March 03, 2020 Published on March 03, 2020

Temporary joy Afghan youth celebrate the reduction in violence   -  REUTERS

With multiple ethnic groups and centres of power, chances of lasting peace are slim even if the Taliban takes control

I began writing this article by asking if anyone was willing to bet on when the shooting would start again in Afghanistan after the signing of the US-Taliban peace deal. Then came news that the shooting had already begun and by Tuesday evening the Afghan government reported 33 Taliban attacks. And finally, by evening, the Taliban issued a statement saying the temporary ceasefire was only for foreign troops. It would be business — and hostilities — as usual against the Afghan army.

The only question that remains is: Why didn’t the Americans just pack their bags and leave without bothering about the formality of a deal? The three-page agreement is about as much of a non-deal as might be possible.

The clearest aspect of the pact, aimed at ending the longest war in US history, is the timetable for Americans to cut and run from Afghanistan.

The Americans have said in 135 days — mid-July — they’ll reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan from around 13,000 to 8,600. The remaining troops will also be out in another 14 months. In exchange, the Taliban has promised it will negotiate with the Afghan government on a power-sharing accord and prevent the Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a springboard for attacks.

Worst of all, the Americans have given up the pretence of worrying about the Afghans. The Afghan people barely get a mention and that includes all those favourite American issues that they were ostensibly in Afghanistan to promote, like democracy, women’s rights and education. And they’ve done a deal with the Taliban who still believe in a strict form of Islamic justice and government and have offered no guarantees to protect civil rights.

Then, there’s the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani that’s been tossed far out into the cold and isn’t part of the deal between the US and the strangely named “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban”. On a one-to-10 scale of diplomatic obfuscation, that name’s a nine-and-a-half, but the essential fact is it offers some sort of recognition to the Taliban.

No cards to play

All this leaves Ghani virtually without any cards to play. He’s threatened not to release the 5,000 Taliban prisoners the Americans have promised will be freed. But the Afghan government has no clout and that became instantly clear when Mike Pompeo dismissed Ghani as a publicity-hungry attention-seeker for saying he wouldn’t release Taliban prisoners. In exchange, the Taliban have said they’ll release 1,000 prisoners they’ve been holding.

But let’s face it, with the shadow of looming US elections hanging over the peace talks, President Donald Trump has been desperate to get out of Afghanistan “however which way” and so it’s been easy for the Taliban to drive a hard bargain. Trump’s putting US soldiers on pretty much the last train out of Afghanistan before the election. He can then take on Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden by trumpeting he always keeps his promises.

There’s no question that all Americans are keen to get out of Afghanistan. Was there any point in the US hanging on for 19 years of fighting in foreign fields very far from home? The idea under Barack Obama was that the army should notch up a few battlefield victories that would give the Americans leverage in the talks that would follow. Instead, the opposite happened, and the Taliban have controlled larger chunks of the country. They’ve taken the city of Kunduz twice and in June 2019 it was recaptured only after a sustained US bombing campaign.

Taking power in Kabul, though, could be a more complicated business. While the Afghan Republic is severely weakened without US backing, all the geo-strategic Afghan experts are agreed on one point: the Afghanistan of 2020 is not the same country seized and mostly subjugated by the Taliban in 1996.

A media explosion has brought 120 TV channels and people are aware of the larger world outside. There are also 168 universities and India has built power lines to Kabul that ensure almost continuous electricity.

Says Gautam Mukhopadhyaya, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan: “It’s very different from 1996. There’s a new generation and the armed forces have acquired some capabilities. Then, the Taliban was seen as a stabilising force. Now they’re seen as a terrorist force backed by Pakistan.”

Ethnic composition

What’s more, the ethnic composition of the country should be kept in mind. The Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group, accounting for around 42 per cent of the population. Then, come the Tajiks at 27 per cent and the Hazaras who form 9 per cent.

The Taliban might bulldoze its way to power. But without compromises by both sides, the Taliban can’t expect to rule for a long stretch untroubled.

Still, the Afghan government isn’t in a strong position for the coming negotiations. It’s effectively been abandoned by the Americans who are now moving to a middle ground as an umpire of sorts. The Taliban, by contrast, will sit at a negotiating table confident their Pakistani backers are behind them.

Where does all this leave India and Pakistan? India’s clearly in a poor position and watching the unfolding situation closely. It got a last-minute invitation for the Doha signing. Also, there’s slight consolation in the fact that the Taliban has toned down its language towards almost all major and peripheral players in Afghanistan and also India. Says Mukhopadhyaya: “The Taliban’s been sounding much more soft. We don’t know if this is genuine or if they’re putting on an appearance. In the prevailing atmosphere, you don’t dismiss it, but you also down don’t let your guard.”

What about the Pakistanis? Says one Afghanistan expert: “They’ll be celebrating now, but they’ll be nervous about the future.” At one level, there’s fear of Pashtun nationalism that’s emerging as a stronger force on both sides of the border. Besides that, the Pakistanis don’t really know which way the Taliban might jump if they achieved total power in Kabul. Therefore, Pakistan may also prefer a coalition government in the Afghan capital. There’s also the worry ISIS will regroup in Afghanistan.

When the Americans left Vietnam, it was only a formality before the North Vietnamese army smashed through to Saigon. In Afghanistan, the situation’s very different. There are multiple centres of power even if the Taliban is the pre-eminent force. The fact is most diplomats rate chances of any peace taking hold as extremely low. Ordinary Afghans may be yearning for peace but it would need a high degree of luck and also statesmanship for that unlikely scenario to roll out.

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Published on March 03, 2020
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