On February 29, when the US and the Taliban signed a historic deal in Doha, there was a glimmer of hope that political solution to the 19-year-long war was in sight. But those hopes were dented within hours when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani objected to the clause in the agreement regarding prisoners swap. The agreement envisages release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners while insurgents were supposed to free 1,000 Afghan security officials before the intra-Afghan dialogue could take place.
Ghani’s reluctance to abide by the agreement stemmed from his assertion that the Afghan government was not part of the US-Taliban deal. But the US reminded Ghani that the release of prisoners was an important step to create a conducive environment for intra-Afghan talks.
What has added to the already fluid situation was the sudden surge in violence after a week-long lull thanks to the truce agreed by all sides. The deadly shooting at a gathering in Kabul attended by several politicians, including Dr Abdullah Abdullah, was a grim reminder that road to peace in Afghanistan will not be easy. The Taliban, nevertheless, distanced themselves from the Kabul attack that left scores dead and injured.
But these events merely within days of the US-Taliban landmark deal have raised serious and genuine questions on whether the peace process could succeed. Many are sceptical if Afghanistan is returning to normalcy any time soon. Detractors often refer to the 1989 situation when former Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan while the US also left the region high and dry. What followed were many years of bloody civil war eventually leading to the capture of Kabul by the Taliban.
This time people have similar fears. The worry is that the Taliban may yet again return to power once the US pulls out of Afghanistan completely. That is why the intra-Afghan dialogue where all Afghan groups would sit together for the future of their country is seen as critically important. But Afghanistan does not have a history of different groups rallying around for the future of their homeland.
The immediate obstacle to intra-Afghan talks is President Ghani. He wants to take the centre stage in those negotiations with major share in power. In fact, he is adamant as regards starting his five-year new term as President after the controversial presidential elections.
The US, however, stopped him from taking that step. For Washington, the outcome of presidential elections is irrelevant now. The US thinks at this stage it is important that all Afghan groups, through the intra-Afghan dialogue, come up with an all-inclusive government. Dr Abdullah and former president Hamid Karzai seemed to have agreed to that idea. Given Ghani’s dependence on the US, it is likely that he will also stop his opposition to the deal with the Taliban.
There will certainly be spoilers present in and outside Afghanistan. The positive side is that President Trump has invested heavily in this peace process. He wants to go for re-election in November this year, telling his voters the success story of Afghanistan. For that he would do whatever it takes to bring some semblance of peace in Afghanistan. He has already shown that he could go out of the way when he spoke to the Taliban’s political chief Mullah Baradar. The telephonic conversation was significant on many counts but it also sent a message to Ghani and others that the Trump administration now considers Taliban a “legitimate political player”.
Another encouraging sign for the peace process is that this time key regional countries including Russia and China are in favour of the US-Taliban deal. These factors will act as crucial safeguards against potential events that may derail the entire process. But ultimately, it is the people of Afghanistan who have to make the right choice.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 9th, 2020.