Here’s a strange story. Officials of a still reigning superpower asks the duly elected president of a country ruined in part by the actions of that superpower, to cooperate in getting an incredibly violent bloodthirsty group into government, thus making the president himself virtually irrelevant, whereupon he will probably be hanged to death by the same group, if he chooses to stay within his own country.
Incredible as it sounds, that’s the sum and substance of what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has asked Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a letter that incidentally is addressed to all major power brokers in Kabul. It’s a last ditch effort to keep to the deadline of the 1 May withdrawal; and no, it’s highly unlikely to take off.
A UN-Mandated Conclave
Blinken’s proposal has several features. The first is for a conclave under the United Nations to bring together the Foreign Ministers of Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Iran, and the US for a ‘unified’ approach to peace.
That’s probably carrying optimism too far, since there is no evidence that the first three desire anything of the sort.
Russia has since made overtures to the Taliban, with the Foreign Ministry even saying that the Taliban have been ‘flawless’ in their adherence to the peace agreement. China has its own embedded spy ring in Afghanistan, and has quietly met with the Taliban several times. Iran offered help as a mediator during a Taliban visit recently, and has been accused of arming the Taliban. Of Pakistan, the less said the better.
India has a few allies in this grouping, but it has the trust of the palace and the people. That makes Delhi a valuable counter in talks .
The Turkey Meeting
That meeting is however mostly window dressing. The real meat is the proposal for a meeting between the two sides under Turkey’s auspices. Turkey has long been a front desk for China-Pakistan coordination on the Afghan ‘process’.
The Turkey meeting, according to Afghan Analysts Network, is likely to lead to a fresh Bonn type conference that will flesh out a roadmap for an ‘inclusive’ government, and a comprehensive ceasefire.
A paper reported to be under consideration has plans for an ‘Islamic Power Sharing Government’ with a series of levels starting with an ‘executive government’ of possibly a prime minister or a president assisted by several ‘deputies’, down to a ‘National Healing Commission’.
A High Council has been mooted with 7 members from each side, and a fifteenth chosen by the president. Simply put, all the proposals on the table refer to various types of power-sharing, without any legal backing whatsoever of the people’s vote.
That’s pretty much what the highly respected Afghan Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, is saying. And what President Ghani also emphasises. None of that counts with the Taliban, or the US or any of Afghanistan’s backers, who just want out.
The Taliban Tightens Control
All of this depends first on the Taliban observing a “90 day reduction in violence”. The fact that the word ‘ceasefire’ is not used, shows how shaky such hope is. The group has little reason to agree to this. In the past year, the Taliban have been discerningly violent. As the UN Mission notes, the Taliban greeted the Doha agreement with a sharp spike in civilian casualties, and a spate of targeted killings – up 45 percent, thus accounting for 62 percent of deaths in 2020. In other words, the Taliban used the time to wipe out all those who spoke against it, including human rights defenders and journalists.
The Taliban see themselves as winning, with a survey showing at least 52 percent control, even though they claim 75 percent. Taliban leaders see little point in sharing power with a ‘puppet’ government.
Deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, from the bloodiest faction of all, boasted at a large gathering of mujahideen that the group had “crush(ed) the arrogance of the rebellious emperors of the world and force(d) them to admit their defeat at our hands”. Interestingly, the speech focusses primarily on calls for unity among mujahideen and leaders. Clearly, it’s not just the Afghan politicos who are divided.
Divisions in Kabul
Blinken justifiably calls for unity among Afghan leaders, encouraging contacts with jihadi big wigs like Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and others. Critics accuse Ghani of showing little interest in reviving a peace process.
The High Council meant to bring together warring factions met only recently after months of delay. The fact that the US gives equal weightage to the president and Abdullah, has been welcomed by the latter’s supporters. Powerful regional leader Atta Md Noor and the Karzai camp also wants an interim government, while government negotiators hint at the same thing.
A copy of the proposals have been sent to various other Afghan leaders like Abdul Rashid Dostum, Sarwar Danesh and others. All are likely to be interested in an ‘interim’ status that gives them a slice of the pie.
The Most Probable Outcome — A Deadline Extension
In sum, the US policy propositions are an opening salvo. Typically of a negotiation document, it contains aspects that everyone knows won’t be accepted — like requiring the end of the Taliban’s stay in Pakistan — or even elections, which are such a long way down the road as to be almost invisible. The immediate thrust is towards a ‘reduction’ in violence and intra-Afghan talks. Khalilzad was in Pakistan, meeting the Pakistan Army Chief along with General Scott Miller, who heads forces in Afghanistan. Delhi merely received a call.
For Delhi, a delay will mean an opportunity to work though the UN Grouping for not just an Afghan peace, but to use the forum to make Afghanistan a pathway for Asian trade that will also benefit those sitting at that table.
Donor fatigue is setting in and the key is to get Afghans to stand on their own feet. And as always, that circles back to Pakistan. Afghanistan as a key transit route requires Pakistan to open up its borders. Pakistan’s Shah Mahmood Qureshi recently said that Islamabad was shifting to geo-economics to facilitate peace in the region. Islamabad needs to be pushed hard towards delivering on this. It’s really the only way to get US forces out, eventually, somewhere down the line.
(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)