US-Taliban Peace Deal: Beyond Déjà Vu? By Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

AFTER a series of grave deliberations, the Trump Administration has directed U.S. diplomats to reach out to Taliban leadership. The core realization came from pragmatic US policy thinkers who advocated that having spent 17 years systematically proving there is no external military solution that could impose security on Afghanistan. Under Democratic or Republican leadership, with a small or large force on the ground, using tightly targeted strikes or the MOAB—it doesn’t matter. But prescience and wisdom advocate the only possible resolution is a political one. And most pertinently, diplomacy, unencumbered by the illusion that military power could ever solve Afghanistan’s political syndrome; the only viable way forward is to adopt a peaceful strategy. After six days of intensive negotiations in Doha, Taliban and U.S. officials meeting that ended Saturday to an agreement that paved the way out for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. After all, the Trump Administration has agreed to have no military bases in Afghanistan.

The latest push for talks between the US and the Taliban also stems from the reality on the ground. The Taliban, along with other insurgent groups, keep gaining control or influence over territory and people in Afghanistan. The US-backed Afghan government and troops, meanwhile, continue to lose ground. So any end to the conflict would require Washington and Kabul to strike some accord with the Taliban, although the insurgent group currently only wants to talk to the US first to ensure it leaves Afghanistan. “It’s clear that people are daring to hope [that] a peace process could go somewhere — to a greater degree than it has in many years,” Johnny Walsh, an Afghanistan expert at the US Institute of Peace, commented.

Notably, the Taliban used to consider the U.S. as their main belligerent in the Afghan war and dismissed the Kabul government as an illegitimate entity or an American puppet. The main credo of the talks ostensibly has been to find a way to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table for peace negotiations with the government in Kabul to end the Afghan conflict. The main interlocutors’ of the peace talks have been Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan — the only countries to recognise the Taliban regime of the late 1990s — have also all participated in the talks. Another round of peace talks between Afghanistan’s Taliban and the United States is tentatively set for 25 Feb, a Qatari Foreign Ministry official said on Sunday.
The draft deal stipulates that US troops would leave within 18 months of the agreement being signed, potentially ending the US waged war in Afghanistan. Truly, Pakistan has extended its efforts to support the US-led dialogue with the Afghan Taliban on track by managing a meeting between the visiting chief American negotiator and the Taliban representatives, highly placed sources told VOA. After nearly two decades of war, occupation and nation building, Washington is finally willing to try talking to the Taliban. The chief American negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Twitter that the talks were “more productive than they have been in the past” and he hoped they would resume shortly.

An insight into the talks’ history reflects that in the most intensive talks since formal discussions resumed last July, US negotiators agreed on a full withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, and the Taliban pledged that Afghan soil wouldn’t be used for attacks against the US or other countries, a person briefed by a Taliban participant in the talks said. Progress was so swift that many participants expected the unveiling of a peace deal on Saturday. But questions remain over the definition of a full withdrawal via a defacto ceasefire, the time needed for redeployment and whether equipment would be included in the pullout.

The Taliban have had long been holding the conviction they will first discuss peace only with the Americans, who toppled their regime in Afghanistan in 2001. But the United States has mostly insisted that the Afghan government must take part. The recent strategy shift, which was confirmed by several senior American and Afghan officials, is intended to bring those two positions closer and lead to broader, formal negotiations to end the long war. The new shift to prioritize initial American talks with the Taliban over what has proved a futile “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” process strongly stems from a realization by both Afghan and American officials that President Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy is not making a fundamental difference in rolling back Taliban gains. Since long Pakistan has been advocating a political settlement to end war in Afghanistan, US decision is now welcomed by Islamabad. Pakistan reiterates its commitment to play a facilitation role in good faith. Peace and stability in Afghanistan remains a shared responsibility among all stakeholders. In region, both Russia & China espoused Pakistan’s role in Afghan peace talks. Islamabad is right in its poised conviction that peace in Afghanistan is central to regional stability.

Understandably, the war in Afghanistan – along with Iraq – has transmogrified the thinking pattern of an entire generation in America thinks about its country’s role in the world affairs. Nevertheless, the US exit strategy must be fair and free from any dichotomy to come out from its strategic limbo in Afghanistan. The Taliban will never accept any proxy US role in Afghanistan. The triumph of peace seems a real challenge ahead because of a pending intra-Afghan peace dialogue. And yet paradoxically, a controversial U.S. private security business firm signalled Friday it is slated to return to business, spurring questions of whether President Trump will seek to privatise the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Blackwater took out a full-page ad in the latest edition of Recoil magazine with the message: “We are coming,” the Military Times reported on Friday. Ironically, the ad comes a day after Defence Secretary Mattis announced he would resign from his post and word emerged that Trump will draw down troops in Afghanistan.

— The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum- analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of European Society of International Law (ESIL).


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