A new diplomatic push by the United States, China, Russia and Pakistan is apparently aimed at reviving a process leading to a negotiated solution to the four-decade-old war in Afghanistan.
The planned meeting between the Taliban and a delegation representing the Afghan society in China later this month is a result of these efforts.
But a lot more needs to happen to build momentum towards a new Afghan peace process that can resolve the conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban and end subversive foreign interference – a permanent feature of the Afghan war since 1979.
The recent diplomatic efforts by U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and visits to Kabul by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were aimed at preparing ground for resuming negotiations with the Taliban. Senior U.S. officials are also keen on assuring the Afghans that they will not be abandoned like the Kurds.
All parties need to learn lessons from the previous negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban that ended on September 7 with U.S. President Donald Trump tweeting that if the Taliban "cannot agree to a cease-fire during these very important peace talks … then they probably don't have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway."
Trump ending the negotiations in Doha proved to be a blessing in disguise. It provided an opportunity to all parties for introspection. It is too early to conclude if the pause has actually enabled them to go for course correction. Many non-Taliban Afghans had serious reservations over the U.S. rushing to embrace and legitimize the Taliban while the latter were still stubbornly resorting to suicide attacks and other terrorist acts against the civilian population. Some Afghans are not yet convinced that embracing the Taliban is a wise course.
What made the process originally palatable, despite such reservations, was Zalmay Khalilzad’s formulation that "nothing is agreed unless everything is agreed," meaning that a U.S. withdrawal is linked to Taliban counterterrorism guarantees, a permanent ceasefire, and dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Subsequently, this formulation appears to have been abandoned as the Doha negotiations mainly focused on two points: the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s commitment to denying space to the terrorists.
Thus, the process became more about U.S. withdrawal rather than being instrumental in bringing peace and reconciliation to Afghanistan. One has to see if the intra-Afghan dialogue and ceasefire is given the type of priority in the new round of negotiations in China that was originally envisaged in Doha.
Other important fallout from the previous stage of negotiations was the growing rigidity in the Taliban’s position after achieving international legitimacy by directly negotiating with the U.S. This was disproportionate with their internal political influence and popular support among Afghans. Perhaps this encouraged them to insist on restoring their so-called Islamic Emirate, the formal name for their regime in the 1990s. The Taliban emirate was notorious for its oppressive theocratic despotism and is not compatible with the new sociopolitical realities of Afghanistan where the Taliban’s oppression and violence has mostly earned it public disapproval. Despite some pragmatic statements, it’s difficult to predict any flexibility in the Taliban’s position with certainty before they put their cards on the table in the next round of negotiations in China.
It is important to note that the most recent consultations among the big powers and important players during the current pause led to a consensus on going to a new venue, China, for the resumption of dialogue between the U.S. and Taliban. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were not comfortable with Doha because of their adversarial bilateral relations with Qatar. Although negotiators from all sides actively participated in Doha, some senior Afghan leaders whose participation would be indispensable at a later stage weren’t comfortable with playing their role in the tiny Gulf state. They wouldn’t have any hesitation about China. For Pakistan and the Taliban, China as a venue for negotiations is convenient both politically and logistically.
A larger question hanging over efforts to revive the Afghan peace process is gauging the extent to which Pakistan's approach towards Afghanistan has really changed. The country's security establishment has molded its Afghan policy behind closed doors with little transparency and contribution from the civilians. As the recent developments have convincingly proved, Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban remains its only bargaining chip in its transactional relationship with the U.S. But there is also a flip side to this phenomenon. Presence of “good Taliban” in Pakistan means the expansion of Talibanization leading to the growth of extremism and terrorism in the country. This policy has also created a lot of alienation and hostility among non-Taliban Afghans towards Pakistan. It also means a negative international image and attracting sanctions from international bodies such as the Financial Action Task Force.
Any effort to change the traditional pro-Taliban policy in Pakistan meets resistance from the extremists on all fronts. This antagonism is also reflected in the deepening political polarization in Pakistan, where an Islamist and traditionally pro-Taliban party is spearheading the effort to force Prime Minister Imran Khan from office. The effort is really aimed at ousting Khan's mentor, the powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
A robust push for peace in Afghanistan will need a stable Afghan government and functioning political system. The September 28 Afghan presidential election posed a special dilemma for both the U.S. and the Taliban. In the run up to the vote, Washington appeared to prefer the formation of an interim government acceptable to all parties to the conflict over an election that, according to their thinking, could deepen hostilities between the Afghan government and the Taliban. After the collapse of talks with the Taliban, the U.S. joined the European Union and some other countries in supporting the vote as a means for strengthening the democratic process. The Taliban attempted to sabotage the process with attacks during campaigning and on the September 28 voting day.
The international community now needs to pay close attention to ensure that both President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah accept the results of the vote. They must lean on the anemic election authorities to ensure transparency. Afghanistan can only achieve lasting peace if the international community helps Afghans in preserving their achievements since 2001. Strengthening an Afghan republic backed by most Afghans still remains an urgent priority when international attention is easily attracted by the lure of a Taliban reincarnation.
Afrasiab Khattak is a former member of the Senate of Pakistan and an analyst of regional affairs.