By Chayanika Saxena*
It is both a theoretical first step and the foremost practical demand to try and achieve peace in a society or state that is said to have left behind its violent past. While such transitions from a conflict to a post-conflict society/state are never so clean and clear, certain features such as cessation of overt violence, desire for negotiations and the like are taken as indicators that signal progress towards such a transition.
Afghanistan was declared a ‘post-conflict’ nation with the ouster of the Taliban by the US-led forces in 2001 but it appears that the international forces had hurried into making such a faulty declaration. While violence has hardly receded in Afghanistan — in fact, it has increased in intensity in the last two years — the negotiation process between the two major players — the Afghan state and Taliban — has hardly materialised. In fact, the process of negotiations in Afghanistan has followed a meandering pattern, involving many U-turns and branching out that ended nowhere.
Peace negotiations in Afghanistan are once again back in international focus, especially as a different set of actors have decided to take the bull by its horns — all in the name of ensuring peace in Afghanistan. The most recent grouping to have emerged on this front is that of Russia, China and Pakistan. Although they had met twice in the past, but during their third meeting in Moscow to discuss peace in Afghanistan (without Afghanistan), they seem to have decided what is the best in Afghanistan’s interest and how to go about achieving it. The solution lies in becoming flexible about the ‘red lines’ and discuss peace with Taliban which, in Russia’s opinion, is a ‘political and social movement’.
While it is undeniable that for peace to come and stay in Afghanistan would require the Taliban to be on the same page, there is still lack of clarity on the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of re-integration, that is, if at all the Taliban are seen as legitimate partner in progress towards peace. Differing and often contradictory opinions have emerged in dealing with this ‘who and how’, with the stances changing as quickly as lines in the sand. For instance, where the Bonn Conference of 2001 did not include members from the Taliban to discuss the way ahead for Afghanistan, the idea of talking to the ‘moderate’ Taliban gradually came to be favoured by the American administration and their ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’.
With the change of administration in the US, the then President Barack Obama came to the conclusion that ‘there will be no peace without reconciliation’, and consequently, Taliban as a group was divided by external actors between the ‘good and the bad’ elements — a distinction that continues to be held by different actors, with different terminologies and to different effect.
In all this, it appears that India has stuck to its guns more than any other regional power involved (indirectly) in the peace process as it has steadfastly opposed the idea of drawing a distinction between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban. While this refusal to accept such distinction and the Indian resistance to the idea of integrating the ‘good’ Taliban (or any Taliban for that matter) into mainstream Afghan politics emerges from its own strategic concerns, it is undeniable that this approach — which was aimed to ‘divide-and-rule’ — has some inherent follies and is affected by external shortcomings. These include lack of clear recognition of the structural and ideological strength of Taliban, an ineffective DDR (Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration) policy, regional differences and meddling, and the like.
Pakistan, unlike India, has been a devout follower of this distinction. In fact, it was in 2001 that then Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf got the US Administration to concede to his idea of reaching out to the ‘moderate’ Taliban. This was done to ensure that if some elements from the Taliban indeed manage to make it into the mainstream, the Pakistani deep-state, which is known to have its ‘influence’ on this group, would continue to have a lever to pull in the Afghan state.
As part of its larger need of creating ‘strategic depth’ vis-à-vis India, the Pakistani deep-state has extended the (imagined) schism between the good and bad within Taliban to those between Taliban, whereby the Afghan Taliban becomes good and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (which conducts attacks on Pakistani soil) becomes bad.
Another regional power which seems to be cultivating this distinction is Iran. Although Iran was opposed to the Taliban throughout the years it was in power in Afghanistan, it has been reported that this Shia state has stepped up its support to this group. Where Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is reportedly equipping the Taliban, the city of Zahedan in Iran has become another centre for Taliban’s operations.
In fact, in the name of establishing ‘diplomatic cooperation’ with the Taliban, Zahedan — which sits at the border between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan; houses Iran’s Sunni population; and is also believed to be a hub of al-Qaeda and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan — has come to be designed as another ‘Taliban Shura’, similar to the one that is known to exist in Quetta, Pakistan.
Iran, which has also prominently taken side in the Syrian conflict, has also established a 15,000-plus local militia, Liwa Fatemiyoun, composed of Afghanistan’s Shia Hazaras, and which reportedly has also been redirected towards Afghanistan to ‘protect’ Iran’s interests there.
Overall, the situation as it stands today is a real-world extension of the old adage ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’. Peace in Afghanistan continues to appear distant not only as a result of the new challenges that have emerged, but also for the lack of coherence among the actors who have assumed for themselves the role of restoring peace in the country.
*Chayanika Saxena is Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]