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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 38 New Delhi September 7, 2019

The Scene in Afghanistan: Perfidious Americans and Ambitious, Crafty Taliban

Saturday 7 September 2019

by Apratim Mukarji

Every commentator on Afghanistan goes back to the year 1989, even though they are talking about today’s developments. That year, with the Soviet occupation Army driven out of Afghanistan and the hapless country and its people abandoned to the unfolding depredations of tribal-enmity-driven mujahideen militias at each other’s throat for the spoils of power, the Americans withdrew to the safety of their far-away home. This sordid history is now about to be repeated in the country.

Easily, the most astonishing aspect of the much-anticipated peace negotiations which are taking place between the Trump Government and a resurgent Taliban, is the legitimate, popularly elected Afghan Government being deliberately ignored despite its vehement and persistent protests. The talks, protracted and reconvened every time by the Taliban, which clearly enjoys the primary position it has gained or is allowed to have gained, are nearing fruition, fulfilling in every little detail the wishes and objectives of the frighteningly powerful terrorist militia. While America continues to behave as if it does not mind taking orders from the Taliban, the latter make no bones about their dominance over the world’s most powerful nation and the most fearsome army as far as Afghanistan is concerned. With the former friends like the Russian Federation, China, and Iran openly clamouring for their positions in the anticipated peacetime benefits in the approaching Taliban takeover, the government of President Ashraf Ghani (Ahmadzai, the clan-identification, dropped since his election) stands hopelessly abandoned and forlorn.

Even as this article was being written, came the news of the latest Taliban outrage even as the talks with the US were getting into the final and decisive phase. The terrorists attacked the Kunduz city in the north (which had been a scene of see-saw battles for control over the last few years) on August 31, killing at least three civilians and 41 wounded. The Reuters news agency reported that the attack ensued several hours of gun battles in the midst of a decisive phase in the peace talks gathering momentum. Heavy fighting began in the city after Taliban fighters mounted a multi-pronged attack in the morning, forcing government forces to rush in with reinforcements to stop a takeover of Kunduz. Going by the government accounts, the Taliban were forced to a weakened position with 36 of their fighters dead by ground fighting and air operations. However, later reports spoke of fighters gaining entry into homes and continuing to fight the government forces in various pockets in the city. The Taliban spokes-man Zahihullah Mujahid claimed that government forces were under “heavy” pressure in these areas, while the government said that its priority was to protect civilians.

It is relevant to recall that the Taliban have reached today’s powerful and well-entrenched position by slowly and doggedly pursuing their goal of capturing as much as possible of Afghan territory and thereafter govern them to establish their credentials as a state power, and at the same time to prove the government’s and its army’s inability to govern the country in the face of the Taliban challenge. They have clearly concluded that both their objectives have been achieved, and that no power on earth can any longer deny them their right to take over the governance of the country, a governance that will have the sanction of the international community unlike the last time when the Taliban rule remained unrecognised during the six-year duration. It is the Trump Administration that has played the most singular role in acceding that global sanction.

Are there differences between the current peace process in Afghanistan and similar peace processes implemented in other parts of the world? Easily, the most important difference is that this particular peace process is too complex to be resolved through peaceful means. The fact is that the calls for peace talks with the Taliban are inspired not by genuine belief and rational calculations that the talks would bring peace to Afghanistan but by desperation and disillusion-ment with military operations against the terrorist group which have yielded little strategic success since the insurgency began. The reality is that not only the Taliban have no interest in the peace talks n the current conditions but there are too many state and non-state actors with diverging interests and agendas involved in this conflict that satisfying the demands of all parties through a peace deal with the Taliban is impossible.

Research scholar Ali Ahmad Pasoon of The Fletcher School writes in Mission Impossible: Afghan Peace Talks (May 18, 2017) that in analysing the Afghan situation, one should acknowledge that the conflict is neither a purely domestic conflict nor are the Taliban and the Kabul regime the only main parties to it. Like many civil wars of the modern era, there are many regional and global actors fuelling this conflict whose participation and agreement, while realistically not possible, is a requirement for success of peace talks. To demonstrate the complexity of the conflict and establish that it cannot be resolved simply through an Afghan-led peace process, one should view the Afghan war as a three-tier domestic, regional and global conflict involving multiple actors with divergent objectives and interests.

Pasoon and other analysts rightly emphasise that the repeated calls by leaders of the Afghan government, their efforts to set up the High Peace Council and release Taliban prisoners as well as other measures of appeasement leave little room for doubt about the genuineness of their desire for peace talks and a resultant settlement with the Taliban. Rightly too, Kabul insists that peace negotiations should tke place under the framework of the current constitution. The implications of this condition are that the Taliban must engage in peace talks by recognising the legitimacy of the government and accepting the rights and obligations enshrined in the constitution.

The insurgents apparently seek to counter this straight-forward and well-delineated position with varying signals on their desire for peace and preconditions for participation in peace negotiations. While a sizeable number of former Taliban Government officials and their fighters have laid down their arms a nd cooperated with the government, the Taliban leadership has never recognised the legitimacy of the post-2001 Afghan political system with its various organs, such as, the constitution, parliament, the electoral system, and the elected government. In its public stance, all these are illegitimate. However, this stance is not unadulte-rated, since the Taliban accepted Kabul’s offer of talks and opened an office in Qatar and sent a delegation to Doha in June, 2013 apparently authorised by the “supreme leader” Mullah Mohammad Omar, who was killed two years later by the Americans. However, the Taliban reaffirmed their desire for participating in peace talks under the new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour and sent a delegation to Islamabad for continuing talks with the Afghan Government. While the second round too failed to yield results, the Americans killed Mullah Mansour too in a drone strike in Pakistan. The current leader, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada was initially a hardliner and refused to continue with the talks but later relented, and more rounds of talks have since followed.

Throughout these rounds of negotiations, the Taliban have been steadfast with enhancing the ferocity of their attacks on government forces, the government, political leaders, civilians and the media, and including foreigners and especially international agencies. They obviously do not wish to let any of these sections to harbour any such delusion that they are immune from assaults. There are occasional fights between the Taliban and ISIS, complicating the situation. Besides the ISIS, there are several other aspirants which wish to enjoy the fruits of peace and power once the two negotiating sides reach an agreement. Where that probability will leave the current government remains undecipherable. Even the immediate holding of the presidential election appears to be uncertain.

The only certainty is Washington’s burning desire to get out of its commitment as quickly as possible, and in its haste the Trump Administration is the least mindful about what fate holds for the political system and the people. The woes of the Afghans are indeed unending.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs and has authored Afghanistan: From Terror to Freedom (2003).

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