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Afghanistan’s Stability Hinges on Regional Consensus on Peace Process

The article gives a brief introduction about the Afghan peace talks held in Doha and the resultant Intra-Afghan dialogue and the agreement over withdrawal of the US troops by April 2021. It also discusses the potential obstacles to peace due to differences in the political aspirations for the state, stance on foreign interference, etc. among the parties to this dialogue. Furthermore, the perspectives of the immediate neighbouring states — India and Pakistan, and active and pivotal player in the state — the Middle East, about a peaceful Afghanistan, have also been talked through. It ends with a brief analysis about the impact of change in the US leadership on this deal.

The much-awaited intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation (representative of Afghan government) opened in the second week of September in Doha, Qatar. According to the deal, talks were supposed to happen in the month of March-April, but got delayed due to disagreement on the release of prisoners by both the Taliban and the Afghan government. It is the first time that the Taliban leadership has agreed to have face-to-face meetings with top representatives of the government in Afghanistan. Diplomats from several countries including the US, Pakistan, China and India attended the ceremony.

The US-Taliban peace deal is a negotiation process whereby the US first negotiated with the Taliban who were brought to the negotiating table by Pakistan, followed by the intra-Afghan dialogue and finally leading to a comprehensive agreement to put an end to a protracted conflict of 18 long years. The main objectives of the deal are to end violence by declaring a ceasefire, an intra-Afghan dialogue for  lasting peace, Taliban to cut its ties with terrorist organisations such as al Qaeda, and the US troop withdrawal by April 2021. Among other issues discussed in Doha were to arrive at a permanent ceasefire, safeguarding the rights of women and minorities and disarming tens of thousands of fighters belonging to the Taliban and private militias. Another important issue was regarding the power sharing and making changes to the Afghan Constitution. The Afghan government and the Taliban seemed willing to end the long and bloody war through peaceful dialogue. These talks have generated hope and opportunities for the two parties to be pragmatic in their approach and not lose this crucial opportunity of negotiating an end to the fierce conflict.

However, the intra-Afghan talks seem to prolong and prove a more complicated affair than it was predicted as not only has the violence intensified in Afghanistan since the talks but also the number of casualties is rising as the recent attacks across the country show. When people are losing their lives in attacks, the two parties are blaming each other for the prevailing situation in the country. 

The Donald Trump administration was determined to withdraw most of its remaining troops from Afghanistan before the presidential election. By June-end, the US had reduced its troops’ presence to 8,600 as promised and Pentagon had said that the country’s troop levels in Afghanistan would further drop to 4,500 in November, if the negotiations proceed smoothly. Washington was putting pressure on Kabul and the Taliban to negotiate for ending the conflict and the Trump administration looked firm and decisive in calling its troops back from Afghanistan.

However, differences are also likely to emerge in the issue of changing the Constitution of Afghanistan where the Taliban is pushing for Afghanistan to be an emirate/Sharia state. This is opposed by Kabul as the Ashraf Ghani government sees Afghanistan as a republic. This key issue will possibly come up for discussion during the negotiations and will impact Afghanistan’s political future.

The path to achieve peace in Afghanistan does not look easy as for a political settlement to be negotiated, the warring parties need to compromise on several tough and complicated issues. For instance, the Taliban continues to insist that the US withdraw from all its military bases. The US, according to the deal, has promised to withdraw from five of its military bases in Afghanistan before the year-end. Moreover, by the middle of 2021, all foreign forces are supposed to withdraw from Afghanistan. Influential sections of the US political and security establishments are still reluctant to pull out of Afghanistan completely despite the country having spent trillions of dollars to support the Afghan security forces.

At the opening session of the Doha meeting, India was represented by a high-level delegation. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, addressing the inaugural session by video, reiterated for an “Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled” peace process. However, India has had to shed its reluctance to recognise the fact that it has to deal with the Taliban sooner rather than later. The US also views India as a legitimate stakeholder in the Afghan peace process. India cannot compromise with the fact that several insurgent groups that are still active in the Kashmir Valley, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba, were trained in Afghanistan when the Taliban was in power in Kabul. India has time and again objected to the hyphenation of the Afghan issue with that of Kashmir. Until recently, the Indian government was adamant in its position for having any formal or otherwise contact with the Taliban. The Haqqani group — a key player in the talks forms a significant component of the Afghan Taliban — is viewed as anti-Indian and has close connections with the Pakistani security establishment.

Pakistan has maintained that Afghans alone must be the masters of their destiny without any outside influence or interference. In fact, the Trump administration has been thankful to Pakistan for its role in getting the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Turkey, Qatar and the US allies in the Middle East have hailed the peace talks as a real chance for peace in Afghanistan. However, given the parties involved in the agreement, it was rejected immediately by Tehran, on the argument that the deal excluded the Afghan government and other Afghan stakeholders. Iran is believed to support networks of proxy militias financially, throughout the Middle East, and is interested in both countering the US and supporting groups in Afghanistan that align with broader Iranian objectives. With the recent signing of the Abraham Accords and other Gulf countries following the footsteps of the UAE, this peace treaty has added to the concerns of Iran and the latter might politically manoeuvre with the help of other regional powers, covertly, to sustain its interests in the region.

For the US, getting to the point of signing this treaty has not been easy. However, there had been reservations in the US administration about this deal before and the stakes are high with the fear of militant and terrorist groups resurfacing in the region. Biden, the US President elect, relatively has a diplomatic approach to foreign policies which might see some changes to the deal but not a complete makeover.

The prospect for peace and stability in Afghanistan depends on regional consensus to support the peace process, more than on actual progress of intra-Afghan talks. India’s vision of a sovereign, united, stable and democratic Afghanistan is shared by many countries party to it, including Afghanistan, cutting across ethnic and provincial lines. A more active engagement will enable like-minded forces in the region to ensure that the vacuum left by the US withdrawal does not lead to an unravelling of the gains during the last two decades.

Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Featured Image source: The New York Times

Gazi Hassan
Gazi Hassan
Gazi Hassan is Senior Research Associate at the CPPR Centre for Strategic Studies. His research covers areas on Asia-Pacific, particularly exploring the geopolitical dynamics, blue economy, developments related to trade and terrorism, role of various actors and security dynamics of the region. He has an MPhil in International Studies (Jamia Millia Islamia) and an MA in Peace Building and Conflict Analysis (Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, JMI). He can be contacted on email at [email protected] and on twitter @gazihassan

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