By Sankar Ray
Peaceniks in Afghanistan heaved a sigh of relief, with subdued optimism, when in November last year Col Chris Kolenda, an Afghan war veteran, boarded a Doha-bound plane, along with Robin Raphel for a dialogue with the Talibans – an experimental diplomacy sans formality, aimed at termination of the 17-year war in Afghanistan, a disastrous gamble for the US. Hi-fi strategic and diplomatic experts in the US, who ridiculed the move, have now chosen a disquieting quietitude as the effort bears distinct signs of an unprecedented triumph. Although the move was never formally authorised by U.S. officials, the Trump administration climbed down to assign Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan’s Reconciliation, to lead a U.S. delegation for peace talks with the Taliban representatives in Doha.
Before leaving for Qatar, Khalilzad went on a peace mission to Afghanistan and its uncomfortable neighbour Pakistan to convince the latter to cooperate honestly with Kabul’s efforts for reconciliation with the Taliban group. In the Afghan capital, he met with President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah, as well as representatives of several political groups across the line, key civil society organizations, including Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and Afghan media. The HPC instantly welcomed the negotiations for “internal and external efforts in the peace process. The visit and meeting of Khalilzad is a worthy step forward,” said HPC deputy spokesman Asadullah Zair. Former Taliban functionary Sayed Akbar Agha noted, “The Taliban confirmed their meeting with Khalilzad and it is a good step. These kinds of meetings should continue because the U.S. involved in the war with the Taliban, not the Afghanistan people.” The US Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass stated with guarded optimism that if the Taliban is “serious” about pursuing peace, “it will condemn” the recent attack at an election rally in Takhar, in which dozens were killed and wounded “and punish those responsible.”
With the US team having landed at the capital of Qatar last week-end, silenced at the Pentagon are the biggies, who expressed skepticism over chances of effective brokering for peace. The Talibans too backed down assuring that they would not be averse to keeping the U.S. troops on Afghan soil. They, Kolenda disclosed, promised, ” if an inclusive government, after a political settlement occurs in Afghanistan, wants international forces to be in the country to train Afghan security forces, the Taliban said they would be OK with that, because they’ll have participated in that decision.” The Afghan war veteran was an advisor to the Obama administration, admitted that even in the Obama days, there was no affirmative to encourage the quiet channel, nor the Taliban was cooperative. But “We were able to vigorously challenge their viewpoints, and didn’t just accept what the Taliban told us”, he asserted.
Raphel, who quietly commandeered her quiet, informal diplomacy, is of the view that the US government’s position” has evolved gradually,” and “finally came to accept that it really is a stalemate. While the Taliban can’t win in a traditional way, we can’t win either.” The Talibans too proved their diplomatic acumen fielding a laconic diplomatic outreach from a variety of interlocutors, both governmental and private.
Among the private channels was the anti-nuclear Pugwash conferences that have for years been together active through forums in Doha, Dubai, and Kabul. The key figure was the Pugwash’s secretary general, Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, an Italian quantum physicist who, for five years, has been keeping a line open to the Talibans. Johnny Walsh, a U.S. Institute of Peace scholar and a former State Department official praised the two determined peace initiators. “Chris and Robin were really useful in elevating these issues to a young administration that hadn’t been steeped in the history of the Afghanistan peace process.
The Talibans were less isolated than it seemed. Their political office in Doha helped Kolenda fit the bill. The latter’s abilities were known. The former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates tapped him as his emissary for Taliban talks in 2011, although it was aborted. Like numerous fellow veterans, he knew the cost of the Afghan conflict: He lost four of his soldiers in Kunar and Nuristan in 2007 and 2008. “He was appearing on various panels around town talking perfectly good sense, and not a whole lot of people were,” revealed Raphel.
Washington too had economic compulsions. The US Government Accountability Office in its Report to the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives disclosed that despite the improvement in some fundamental capabilities of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), such as high-level operational planning the latter continues to rely on the U.S. and coalition support to fill several key capability gaps, according to Department of Defense (DOD) reporting. And the USA had to cough up $ 84 billion for defence equipment and accessories. (IPA Service)