The Trump Administration soon after assuming office sought to address the US’s Afghan dilemma by adopting an offensive gesture through measures like increasing the number of American troops and resuming drone strikes.
However, unremitting insurgency in many pockets of the country and mounting civilian as well as troops’ casualties forced Washington to open direct talks with the Taliban.
Ironically, even while the peace talks are very much on between the American and Taliban interlocutors completing their sixth round, the supporting conditions are far from being attained.
Indicating the fragility of the peace process, at least 25 pro-government forces in Afghanistan have been killed in terror attacks as the talks entered into its seventh round on 29th of June in the capital city of Qatar. The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. The ground realities do not indicate that the peace process is gathering momentum and moving in a unidirectional dimension.
Parallel Peace-Making Efforts
While Afghanistan peace talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban interlocutors are continuing on the one hand and Russia hosted the Taliban and Afghan opposition for talks to facilitate the peace process under the Moscow-format on the other.
China also hosted a Taliban delegation recently and Chinese foreign ministry spokesman acknowledged in the media that Abdul Ghani Baradar – the Taliban representative in Qatar, and some of his colleagues recently made a visit to China.
While the withdrawal of American troops seems to be contingent on the progress of the peace talks suitable to US position on the Afghan peace table, the Taliban have been demanding complete withdrawal of forces before proceeding further in the peace process and this proposal has been supported by the Russian interlocutors in their last meeting with the Taliban in Moscow. This suggests the peace talks run parallel rather than converge.
The Afghan Government Has Been Excluded From The Process
The Afghan government has been sidelined in the entire gamut of the process due to the Taliban’s insistence that it is merely an American puppet and the insurgent group’s territorial control and far-reaching influence has restricted the leeway of the external powers in nudging the Taliban from its firm position.
Exclusion of the Afghan government from the peace process not only indicates cornering of the present political institutions representing the country’s fledgling democratic multi-ethnic structure, the Taliban’s intentions remain unclear as to whether the group would work with others to take whatever socio-economic and political gains have been accrued all these years ahead.
The exclusion from the peace process so far means that the process is gravitating toward the Taliban’s agenda which largely remains unclear.
Insurgency Still Continues
While the US Afghan peace interlocutor Zalmay Kalilzad acknowledged that the Afghan government’s release of the Taliban inmates from the Pul-e-Charkhi jail in a peace gesture on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr as well as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s announcement on the release of 887 prisoners would facilitate intra-Afghan dialogue, continuing violence by the insurgent group suggests that it seems to have been strengthened further by such measures even while it could continue to insist that the Afghan government is kept out of the peace process.
Afghan War Casualty Report: June 21-27 published by the New York Times referred to the increasing violence in Afghanistan which has taken a toll of at least 67 pro-government forces and 12 civilians from June 21-27. The report projects that casualties among pro-government forces have increased compared to the preceding week as the Taliban intensified their attacks in some parts of the country. The deadliest attack took place in Herat Province, where the Taliban attacked security outposts in the center of Gulran District.
There have been criticisms from several quarters from within Afghanistan not only of President Ashraf Ghani’s move to release the Taliban prisoners, but the words praising Pakistan for its efforts towards the Afghan peace process on his third visit to Islamabad have been viewed skeptically as a ploy to win the upcoming Presidential elections.
Taliban’s Control Over Other Insurgent Groups Cannot Be Ensured
It is worth-mentioning that many insurgent groups are active in Afghanistan apart from Afghan Taliban. ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has emerged in a new avatar known as ISIS-Khorasan or Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) with its local Afghan roots and contributed to instability in Afghanistan.
The presence of ISIS in many pockets of Afghanistan attested to the fact that insurgencies transform rather than end as the group reappeared in adjoining Islamic states after being pushed from Iraq and Syria. Marine General Frank McKenzie, who heads the U.S. Central Command, told media, on June 12, that he did not believe ISIS in Afghanistan has expanded its capabilities but that it does still represent a dangerous presence in the country.
He said: “they are very worrisome to us” in their eastern Afghanistan strongholds, and added that combat operations had failed to reduce the number of fighters.
Meanwhile, a US report recently confirmed that at least 300 fighters from Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) –a group which usually operates across the border areas of Pakistan and perpetrate cross-border terrorism against India are also active in Afghanistan.
The report says that among the 20 prominent militant organizations active in Afghanistan LeT ranks fifth in terms of fighters along with al Qaeda and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. While the US is seeking guarantees from the Taliban that the group would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a launching-pad for terror operations, it remains doubtful whether the Taliban have complete control over other militant groups considering continuing menace perpetrated by different groups.
The Trump Administration in order to end the 18-year long Afghan war to shelve it as a foreign policy victory and enhance its popularity to win the upcoming election in November, 2020, Russia to safeguard its Central Asian backyard and China to protect China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) might invigorate their efforts to deliver a peace deal.
But the existing geopolitical cleavages would drive them to have different equations with the Taliban as well as with the Afghan government. Lack of a unified peace process testifies to this fact.
Civil Society Groups Feel Cornered
Strength of Civil Society groups is determined by the status of human rights conditions including minority and women rights. However, the Taliban insurgency has not only targeted foreign troops and Afghan government; civilian rights and role of civil society organizations in strengthening them have been indiscriminately compromised too.
On 8th May 2019, the Taliban attacked the offices of an aid international NGO in Kabul, Counterpart International. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack but accused the inter¬national aid workers of being engaged in “harmful western activities” such as “promoting open inter-mixing between men and women”. The United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), on the other hand, condemned the Taliban attack stating it was a “deliberate targeting of civilian aid organization”.
The protracted war in Afghanistan has witnessed many attacks on and assassinations of women in public positions even while the peace talks are ongoing. Mena Mangal, a prominent Afghan journalist, an advocate of women’s rights to education and work as well as a cultural adviser to the lower chamber of Afghanistan’s national parliament has been assassinated indicating the fragility of the peace process.
Meanwhile, Afghan women’s rights activists have been complaining that they have not been represented in the peace process and fear that any American deal with the Taliban would jeopardize their freedom. On the other side, female refugees in Pakistan remain reluctant to return to Afghanistan for reasons like fear of violence and forced recruitment of their children as child soldiers, lack of access to education and poor healthcare facilities.
Pakistan’s Commitment To Peace Process Remains Murky
Even while laxity on fighting terrorism on its soil and failure to meet the counter-terrorism standards set by FATF might lead to blacklisting of Pakistan by the watchdog in October 2019, it does not mean that Pakistan would not use its influence over the Afghan Taliban as a way to twist the political process according to its interests.
It is argued that Pakistan’s continued influence over the Afghan peace process would be ensured by its leverage over the Taliban even if Islamabad denies this. The great powers such as US, Russia and China involved in the Afghan peace process seek Pakistani cooperation in order to get rid of the quicksand of the Afghan quagmire.
Questions Of Democracy And Pluralism Remain Unaddressed
The structure and nature of the political system that would ensue with the Taliban joining the mainstream political process remain vague. For instance Jalaluddin Shinwari, the deputy minister of justice under the Taliban government in the late 1990s, and who still maintains contact with its leaders, maintains the viewpoint that the modern insurgency will not settle for anything less than the return of the Emirate, and has a fundamental distaste for democracy.
Even if the Taliban’s political leaders were willing to show flexibility, its military commanders still decide the negotiating red lines. The peace process has not been able to address the questions of democracy and pluralism so far and this can be inferred from Zabihullah Mujahid – the Taliban’s spokesman’s remark that “Our goal is Islamic government,” and “How this Islamic government will come about is something we cannot decide now. On this issue, the clerics, analysts, and authoritative Afghans make decisions in its right time.”