View: Afghan peace process enters a critical phase
Intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha have shown no visible progress as the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating fast because of unrelenting terror attacks by both the Afghan Taliban and ISIS.Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent maiden official visit to Kabul is a clear indication of tectonic shifts taking place in Afghanistan's political and military scenario following a regime change in Washington. Afghan neighbours, including India, have been furiously calculating the implications of impending drawdown of American troops as well as the rising terrorist violence. Joe Biden’s win may have infused some confidence in Kabul and New Delhi that Washingtonmay now be less in a rush to exit Afghanistan.
Intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha have shown no visible progress as the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating fast because of unrelenting terror attacks by both the Afghan Taliban and ISIS. As the US president-elect Joe Biden has made some key appointments, the outgoing administration is in no mood to relent when it comes to hurriedly withdrawing more troops from the war-torn Afghanistan.
Violence across Afghanistan has risen sharply in recent months. New Delhi has reasons to be worried since hasty withdrawal threatens to trigger a civil war, similar to the one that happened following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The ostensible objective of Imran’s Afghan visit was to deepen trust in bilateral ties and find ways to work jointly for a peaceful Afghanistan even as the White House is preparing for its new occupant. The Pakistani prime minister is reported to have assured Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, of Pakistan’s help in restoring peace in the country. Some committees have also been constituted to pursue matters pertaining to peace and security.
But those who have carefully watched Pakistan’s Machiavellian moves in Afghanistan can’t be so optimistic. Even if there is no consensus among regional countries as to who should rule Afghanistan after the US exit, all of them, except Pakistan, want a stable government in Kabul. Only Pakistan is keen to install a pliable regime in order to control Afghanistan’s foreign and security policy. Islamabad has never invested in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development after the Taliban’s ouster. The reason is simple: Pakistan will fund a regime in Kabul that is in complete sync with its strategic aims.
Pakistan’s effort in pursuit of ‘strategic depth’ in the war-ravaged neighbouring country has been an undeniable fact. Surely, Pakistan has facilitated peace talks between the US and Taliban, which culminated into the Doha Peace Agreement in February 2020. Pakistan has also used its influence to bring some Afghan politicians to come to the negotiating dialogue with the Taliban. But nobody can believe this narrative that Pakistan’s role in Afghan peace process has buried the acrimony between Islamabad and Kabul.
Last month, Islamabad had hosted Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious former Mujahideen leader. Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation of Afghanistan, also visited Pakistan in the month of September. Hekmatyar is known for his proximity with Pakistan. And Pakistan’s security establishment has been trying its best to woo Abdullah to its side, known to be close to India. But it would be naïve to believe that Abdullah has suddenly become convinced of Pakistan’s positive role in the intra-Afghan dialogue. Any progress in weakening terrorist infrastructure that Islamabad wants the world to see is just an eye wash. By attacking India recently over using Afghan soil for launching alleged terror attacks in Pakistan only strengthens the belief about Rawalpindi’s undesirable intentions.
There is no doubt that the Afghan situation would become far worse without a deal with the Taliban. But as long as the Afghan Taliban does not climb down from its maximalist position on the issue of ceasefire and women’s rights, and fulfils its commitment on denying al-Qaeda any safe haven, the threats to regional security will only multiply. The hardline Islamist vision propagated by the Taliban has always been a magnet for Kashmiri radicals, and a major obstacle to peace. Thus, a Trump-dictated full withdrawal of American forces without genuine truce among Afghans will have fatal consequences for the entire region. Even China, which favours reduced American footprints in the region, has now urged the US to withdraw its troops in an “orderly and responsible manner”. Beijing is worried that the volatile Xinjiang province could become a breeding ground for Uighur militants. However, it would be more productive for China to advise its ‘iron brother’ Pakistan to cut ties with Jihadist elements and help make South Asia less terrorism prone.
Although Biden is supportive of the negotiated settlement with the Taliban and is keen to end the Afghan war, however he also favours counterterrorism-focused mission in Afghanistan. Given this background, the Biden administration is likely to listen to the concerns of Kabul and New Delhi. But there is no chance that Biden will unilaterally abandon the Doha deal as it would only undermine reconciliation talks with the Taliban, besides emboldening Ghani in efforts to sideline his political rivals, including Abdullah. Rawalpindi is aware of this dynamic, and that is why Imran was dispatched to Kabul to assure Ghani of Pakistan’s brotherly friendship, and to reassure the new government in Washington of Pakistan’s sincerity toward Afghan peace.
The Biden administration is sure to make necessary adjustments in American policy of disengagement from Afghanistan, which is what New Delhi wants. India will be part of any broad-based initiative which fosters an Afghan consensus on a more inclusive and progressive alternative vision of an Islamic government in Kabul. Therefore, India must act fast in opening channels of communication with the incoming Biden administration’s security team. The purpose should be to enhance coordination on Afghanistan and to ensure that Pakistan suffers consequences for insufficient progress with Afghan peace efforts due to the Taliban’s continued intransigence. If the Afghan peace process falters, Washington is bound to believe that Rawalpindi is the main culprit.
(Vinay Kaura is Assistant Professor, Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. Views expressed are the author's own)