By Sankar Ray
The three-day visit of the US special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad to Islamabad, ending on 4 April, is a compulsion for constructing a sustainable peace in Afghanistan before the sixth round of negotiations in Doha. Whether it will help reduction of uncertainty and boost peace efforts is just a speculation. The US President Donald Trump wrote to the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in the third week of December last year seeking the latter’s cooperation in bringing about peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan responded positively.
At the fifth round of talks in the Qatari capital, between 25 February and 12 March, four basic elements were agreed upon. One, counter-terrorism assurances by Taliban that if they return to power, Afghan soil would not be allowed to be used against US or any of its allies. Two, phase wise troop withdrawal. Three, intra-Afghan dialogue. Four, a comprehensive ceasefire.
But the Pak premier’s clamping of conditionalities like installation of an interim government in Afghanistan for initiating exchange of views on intra-Afghan issues, related to peace negotiations, replacing the present one with the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani at the helm are hurdles for Khalilzad. Khan has little faith in the Ghani government and suggests an interim government with representatives from different sections for building up consensus. “A good government will be established in Afghanistan, a government where all Afghans will be represented. The war will end and peace will be established there,” Khan said shortly after the last round of negotiations.
However, the idea of initiating a peace process was Pakistan’s. It was in 2015 when the then Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif visited Kabul and began high-level exchanges between the two estranged neighbours to open a new chapter in their troubled ties. The unprecedented meeting took place at Pakistan’s tourist resort of Murree, attended by representatives of the United States and China. But the process ended as almost a still born baby after the death of the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar with a news that the Taliban had bonhomie with ISI. That’s an altogether different story.
But the Pak PM’s suggestion compelled Dr Ghani to vent his chagrin towards the US diplomat indirectly through his national security advisor Hamdullah Mohib who pointed accusing fingers at the US special envoy for “seeking his personal interests in negotiations with Taliban”, (although denied by the accused). Kabul has compulsion to talk in toughened tone with Washington, given the reality. Segments of the civil society, including women and youths are peeved at the Ghani government as more than 45,000 security personnel were killed during the present regime. Dr Ghani shot back at Khan, terming the suggestion for installing an interim government as “a flagrant interference in its internal affairs”. Afghan politician and leader of Youth Trend Afghanistan, a social movement Idrees Stanikzai, pulled up the President. “The Pakistanis are threatened by the work President Ashraf Ghani has been doing specifically on economic projects that have made us significantly less dependent on Pakistan, ” but did not spare the Pak PM either. Islamabad is for “a government that pleases Taliban and Taliban in the Afghan government will oblige to them,” he added.
Before his present visit to Pakistan, the peace negotiator went to Kabul and had parleys with the Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, Afghan President’s Chief of Staff Abdul Salam Rahimi and special envoy Umer Daudzai. They assured him of all cooperation, provided it is an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned Afghan peace process. Khalilzad also called on the provincial representatives of the Afghan Women’s Network. “While Afghans alone will decide the composition of their delegation for talks, women must be at the table during all negotiations about peace and Afghanistan’s future,” he admitted.
Currently, there are approximately 14,000 US troops deployed in Afghanistan. There are about 9000 troops from coalition partners there. The withdrawal, if and when it happens, would be by all coalition partners, not just US. Khalilzad stated in a conciliatory tone, “We came together. We will coordinate adjustments in our presence together. And if we leave, we will leave together.”
However, Khalilzad has to keep up optimism alive. Mohib’s aggressive fingers against him notwithstanding, he tweeted ‘he was happy to be back to Kabul, where he met a delegation appointed by the government to run the peace talks with Taliban including Salam Rahimi head of the team and Umer Daudzai, head of the High Peace Council’s secretariat who is also involved in negotiations”. A final and peaceful conclusion continues to be dogged by apparently toughening pointers such as differences over the definition of terrorism, the timeline for the withdrawal of the US and Coalition forces and the nature and scope of any future US military presence in Afghanistan. Lastly, the Talibans have strong anathema towards Kabul rulers as a tradition, built over the last three and a half decades.