Afghanistan's fog of talks

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - K. Iqbal

POLITICO-MIL­I­TARY sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan is quite com­plex. As re­gards mil­i­tary bal­ance of power, James R Clap­per, the US di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence, re­cently warned that fight­ing in Afghanistan will be "more in­tense" this year than 2015 and that Afghans will con­tinue to face "sus­tained at­tacks" by the Tal­iban in 2016. Ac­cord­ing to the Pen­tagon, the Tal­iban is ca­pa­ble of con­test­ing and tak­ing key ter­rains in Afghanistan and it poses a "for­mi­da­ble" and "en­dur­ing" chal­lenge to the Afghan na­tional unity govern­ment.

On the political side, Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani is not tak­ing any bold ini­tia­tives, his out­reach to Tal­iban fac­tions is lim­ited to small en­ti­ties hav­ing lit­tle mil­i­tary ca­pac­ity. Mil­i­tar­ily sig­nif­i­cant Tal­iban out­fits con­tinue to re­ject calls for any pos­si­ble end to the war. Peace is pre­con­di­tioned by them with full with­drawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan. Tal­iban are able to carry out high-pro­file at­tacks in all parts of the coun­try, more than ever be­fore; such ground re­al­i­ties make it hard for the Afghan peo­ple to swal­low the idea that US troops are present to con­tinue the fight against ter­ror­ism in Afghanistan. Grow­ing strength of the Tal­iban and the fail­ure of US mil­i­tary strate­gies to counter their at­tacks sup­ports the no­tion that there could be no mil­i­tary so­lu­tion to the war in Afghanistan. Over the past 15 years. No lessons have been learnt by the Afghan-US side; and there is in­sis­tence on re­peat­ing the mis­takes.

War in Afghanistan is a cre­ation and, there­fore, Afghans are urg­ing an end to a need­less war. The Tal­iban's grow­ing mil­i­tary might is pos­ing a thorny strate­gic ques­tion for Pres­i­dent Barack Obama: Ei­ther Keep the strin­gent rules lim­it­ing the num­bers of strikes in place and risk see­ing the mil­i­tants con­tinue to gain ground, or al­low Amer­i­can pi­lots to bomb a broader ar­ray of tar­gets at the risk of deep­en­ing Wash­ing­ton's com­bat role in Afghanistan; and as a re­sult, fur­ther di­min­ish the chances of any progress in the eva­sive peace process.

Pak­istan has con­sis­tently been ad­vo­cat­ing to end the decades long war and suf­fer­ings en­dured by the Afghan peo­ple. Peace in Afghanistan is in Pak­istan's vi­tal in­ter­est. A promis­ing be­gin­ning had been made to foster a ne­go­ti­at­ing process for peace talks in the last cou­ple of months. Pos­i­tive mo­men­tum was gen­er­ated by the suc­cess­ful meet­ing of the Heart of Asia process hosted by Is­lam­abad and jointly in­au­gu­rated by Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif and Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani. This led to the de­ci­sion by Afghanistan, Pak­istan, the United States and China to cre­ate a Quadri­lat­eral Co­or­di­na­tion Group (QCG) to pro­vide de­ci­sive im­pe­tus to Afghanistan's peace ef­forts.

Task ahead for QCG is com­plex and ar­du­ous and pru­dence de­mands that ex­pec­ta­tions be kept re­al­is­tic and strate­gic pa­tience should be ex­er­cised. It is es­sen­tial now to cre­ate an en­abling en­vi­ron­ment to op­er­a­tional­ize and sus­tain a peace process that is, at least no­tion­ally, Afghan-led. A num­ber of fac­tors are crit­i­cal to es­tab­lish­ing such an en­vi­ron­ment. There should be con­sis­tent and uni­fied po­si­tions and dec­la­ra­tions from the Afghan govern­ment af­firm­ing its com­mit­ment to work for a ne­go­ti­ated peace. In this re­gard re­cent state­ments by the Afghan lead­er­ship and the re­vamp­ing of the High Peace Coun­cil are steps in the right di­rec­tion. Also, there must be a demon­strated ca­pac­ity by the Afghan se­cu­rity forces to hold ter­ri­tory on their own. This would help cre­ate con­di­tions for the Tal­iban to re­turn to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. And, all four mem­bers of the QCG must use their re­spec­tive in­flu­ence and political cap­i­tal to con­trib­ute to the suc­cess of the process.

Lim­i­ta­tion of Pak­istan's in­flu­ence was ex­posed re­cently. Re­port­edly, Pak­istani of­fi­cials threat­ened to ex­pel Afghanistan's Tal­iban from bases in Pak­istan if they did not join peace talks, but the mil­i­tants re­buffed the no­tion. Tal­iban have won new zones of in­flu­ence and con­trol from Afghan se­cu­rity forces. They no longer need their Pak­istan bases in the same way as they did in 2014 and be­fore, so if Pak­istan threat­ens to ex­pel them, it does not have the same ef­fect. Tal­iban's Supreme Coun­cil has voted to re­ject the talks sched­uled for March. Tal­iban are now pour­ing into po­ten­tial com­bat zones for what they say will be a fierce spring of­fen­sive to be launched soon.

Ear­lier, on March 07, the US re­newed its ap­peal to the Tal­iban to join peace talks and said Afghan and the US forces would have to pre­pare them­selves for the prospect of in­creased vi­o­lence in the spring and sum­mer if the in­sur­gent group did not agree to ne­go­ti­a­tions. Tal­iban lead­er­ship re­sponded by ask­ing its fight­ers to hide in the moun­tains to avoid any losses due to stepped-up Amer­i­can bomb­ing. State Depart­ment spokesman John Kirby has said that the United States backed a call by Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani for the Tal­iban to join talks with the Kabul govern­ment.

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