Sunday, August 1, 2021

Afghanistan In Limbo After Trump Cancels Talks With Taliban

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Taliban had constituted a fourteen member peace delegation earlier this year which was tasked with the difficult peace negotiations with the United States. The negotiations were supposed to go ahead even as the war on the ground between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban went ahead. Given the nature of Taliban’s attacks that were often indiscriminate and targeted civilians, keeping the talks on track was difficult from the beginning.

The aim of the dialogue was to build a broad-based political structure that would accommodate the aspirations of the Taliban and the other sections like the mainstream political system in Kabul. The main issue in the talks however was the counter-terrorism guarantee that Taliban leaders had to give to the US; that Afghanistan would not revert back to the late 1990s when it emerged as a host to international terror networks. As a mechanism to ensure continued adherence to the counter terrorism guarantee, the American government reportedly demanded the Taliban to let it maintain full diplomatic presence including its intelligence network after the withdrawal of combatants from the Afghan territory. The Afghan Taliban however maintained that it demanded full withdrawal of US forces which obviously included the intelligence network as well. At this delicate point a gun and bomb attack rocked a military training centre in Kabul that killed an American soldier apart from twelve others.

As the Taliban took responsibility for the attack, the talks broke up with the US President Donald Trump condemning the attack and the Taliban for the mindless attack. The political dialogue that came after nearly two decades of fighting had kindled hope for peace but the developments also showed how difficult it is to conduct negotiations with a group that is in active combat against the government of Afghanistan itself.

Taliban has however said that it remains open to dialogue despite the setback while veteran diplomats have observed that the role of Pakistan behind the Taliban needs to be controlled as removal of US intelligence from the ground in Afghanistan will provide space for terror outfits based in Pakistan to carry out training and preparation for operations in other regional theatres in South Asia.  It however needs to be noted that the Taliban in recent weeks had shown growing autonomy in its attitude to engage other regional players.

While the group had engaged China, Russia, Iran and Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it had failed to hold a dialogue with India. However in August, unnamed Taliban sources had hinted a willingness to engage India also in talks. However, there is little chance of such multi stake holder dialogue with Taliban if the main political dialogue with the US remains off track. India has also so far maintained that it would not engage in any dialogue with any terrorist groups anywhere.

Latest reports suggest that Norway, Germany and Qatar are trying to re-establish connection between the US and Taliban as both sides have spoken in support of finding a peaceful solution to the ongoing violence in Afghanistan after President Trump cancelled the dialogue between the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban team. At the moment however, the real gainer from the cancellation is the election process in Afghanistan which is expected to be completed by the end of this month.

This also has high possibility of violence as the Taliban has declared to oppose the election which it doesn’t consider legitimate.  In these circumstances, the future of Afghanistan which has weathered external aggression and civil war for more than four decades remains uncertain. As of now it appears that, Taliban will continue fighting the US forces as well as the Afghan government if the political dialogue fails to take off.

With growing fatigue among the US forces and an upcoming election, President Trump also is short of policy options in this difficult terrain. Afghan peace activists say that the talks will probably begin after the Afghan election. As of now Afghanistan, ‘the heart of Asia’ is in a state of limbo. For the talks to restart, Taliban will have to agree to the demands of counter-terrorism guarantee from the US. The path ahead seems easy but a compromise from Taliban is necessary.

Script:Kallol Bhattacherjee , Special Correspondent, The HINDU

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