The rupture and beyond

The tweet that many people had feared would come any time during the last one year has come; President Trump has called off US Peace talks with Taliban after a US soldier was killed in a Taliban attack in Kabul. It’s too early to understand as to whether Trump’s tweet has totally killed the process or there is still room for revival of negotiations in pursuit of a “better deal”. Ironically President Trump has made the killing of one American soldier the reason for calling off the talks where thousands of innocent Afghan civilians, including women, children & men have lost their lives during the last one year while the so called peace process was going on. But the actual reason for the rupture in the process might be President Trump’s frustration with the prolonged & complicated peace process that didn’t come up to his expectations of a “ deal “ boosting his internal political standing. Along with that there was growing pressure of the different elements in the US ruling elites, including some military circles and members of Congress, against signing what they called “a disastrous deal” with Taliban.

But to put the reported rupture in context it’s important to point out that a muddled US policy signalling at the withdrawal of US troops “at any cost” encouraged Taliban’s intransigence and alienated the Afghan government. The process remained mostly confined to talks between US & Taliban without a systematic and substantive intra Afghan dialogue and a push for ceasefire that would have given greater credibility to it. In the last few weeks the situation deteriorated so much that not just the Afghan government but the entire state system had to bear the brunt of the onslaught of the insurgents. Taliban in their typical brutal Cold War fashion , not only refused to enter a ceasefire but they were even reluctant to entertain the idea of reducing the level of violence. The murders, kidnappings and tortures by Taliban reached a level where their war strategy acquired greater similarities with that of the IS. But then why wouldn’t they remain fixated at the idea of preferring violence over advancing on peace path when they could not get away with taking responsibility of suicide bombing against Afghan civilians as US negotiators nor Pakistani officials had drawn any red lines for them. There can’t be a perfect peace process but normally the state players regard renouncing violence and recognizing writ of the state by insurgents sooner or later as their red lines. That’s how the insurgents gain legitimacy in becoming first partners in making peace and subsequently in running the state system. This wasn’t the case in the current negotiations. Serious complaints also emerged in Afghan media and civil society about the killings of innocent civilians in the night raids and bombing from the air by the government forces. The purpose here is not to equate the state forces with insurgents but to underline the culture of brutality created by this overextended war.

Unlike the situation after withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan when intense big power rivalries didn’t leave political space for the peace & reconciliation process in Afghanistan, in the current situation US, Russia and China have been able so far to insulate the Afghan peace process from big powers rivalries. This kept the process intact despite serious obstacles in the intra Afghan dialogue. This is also the most important factor for creating optimism about restarting of the peace negotiations in Afghanistan in the near future. We also must remember that despite some reservations neither the Afghan government nor the opposition political forces there had rejected the peace process because they know that wars of all types during the last forty years haven’t solved any problem. The differences were about the framework and modalities and not about the negotiations process as such. So the negotiations for peace must resume, and resume soon as Afghans are paying with their blood for each and every minute of war. Since the US had initiated the negotiations and the rupture has also come from their side US has a greater responsibility than anyone else for the resumption of talks. Afghan leaders should also take responsibility, give leadership and demonstrate the courage to sacrifice their personal, factional or partisan interests for peace. The consistency, clarity, steadfastness and sacrifice of Dr Najibullah, the former Afghan President can be a model. We know that he is remembered and respected by common Afghans today and even by those who opposed him in his life.

The problem with using Twitter for policy statements is the extreme vagueness and uncertainty that its brevity is capable of producing. Donald Trump’s tweet today about Afghan peace negotiations will remain to be a glaring example in this regard. Political analysts may appear to be shooting in the dark. But there are a few extremely important things that needs to be tackled urgently. First, the US must immediately take all parties in confidence about the concrete reasons for the rupture and the proposed timeline and framework for resumption of dialogue. Second that the rupture in peace negotiations shouldn’t lead to an all out war among the parties to the conflict. For this purpose all the parties must remain in touch even if they have to do it informally. Third, all the parties should agree to preserve the positive achievements of the negotiations for peace ( which means not to reopen the issues on which there was total consensus among ALL parties). Fourth, for Pakistan it’s important to stick to a long term, consistent and durable bilateral policy framework towards Afghanistan. Pakistan shouldn’t look at Afghanistan from the prism of its policy towards India or its relations with the US. Pakistan and Afghanistan have to live as good neighbors.

Afrasiab Khattak is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs

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