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The Afghan peace process has reached its most critical phase with both the US and the Taliban putting different timelines for a temporary ceasefire before sealing a peace agreement. The ceasefire will test the level of trust between the two sides who have been through many ups and downs together since President Donald Trump appointed Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad for the delicate job of engaging the Taliban. However, both sides remained caught in combat on the ground in Afghanistan.
The United States has been maintaining there should be a ten day period for ceasefire which has been contradicted by the Taliban which asked for seven days. Such bargaining has been a part of the difficult process of engagement.
The peace talks had progressed to a dramatic turn when in September 2019, President Trump agreed to host both the Taliban political negotiating team as well as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the United States. However, the initiative failed as an attack from the Taliban on a military base near Kabul went ahead without any regard for the status of the peace talks.
It took several months and international efforts by China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia to restart the talks which has once again reached a critical juncture. Taliban sources say that they have the draft agreement ready as it was prepared in September and that there are no changes necessary in the text as the assurances were given by both sides. However, there is a need to build the atmospherics before the final sealing could take place.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had stated that the US now expects to demonstrable evidence that the Taliban can actually stop fighting after entering into the peace agreement. “We got close once before to having an agreement: a piece of paper that we mutually executed and the Taliban were unable to demonstrate either their will or capacity or both to deliver on a reduction in violence,” Mr. Pompeo had said.
This demonstration will also indicate the political commitment of the outfit to begin the more difficult negotiations with the Government of President Ghani which is essential to ensure the building of a domestic peace process that will ultimately end the decades-long Afghan war.
The American demand for demonstrable commitment to peace is partly because of the long-term impact that the agreement will have on Afghanistan and on the South Asian region. The Taliban still considered by most security experts as a terrorist outfit; will gain major political legitimacy once an agreement is signed between the US and the outfit’s political negotiation team based in Doha, Qatar.
The Government of Afghanistan has maintained a cautious approach to the negotiation so far. Former head of Afghan intelligence Amrullah Saleh has been unambiguous in his criticism of the Taliban and has repeatedly stated that the outfit is undependable. Mr Saleh has stated that the Taliban should first acknowledge the futility of a violent politics to attain its goals. Such statements from the key players in the Afghan state shows the difficult path ahead that will remain uncovered even if the US and the Taliban manage to strike some sort of a deal before the US election.
President Trump who has come out of the impeachment process more or less unscathed, is in secure position and is unlikely to jeopardise his domestic ratings by getting betrayed by the Taliban once again. This demand for a demonstrable evidence from Mr. Pompeo therefore is the move of a confident US President to find a solution to the lingering war in the strategically important landmass which has also emerged as a playground of Iran and the US after the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani on January 3 2020.
India has all along maintained that any peace process in the war ravaged country should be Afghan led and Afghan owned. India wishes to see a peaceful and secure Afghanistan. But, New Delhi has reservations on negotiating with or relying upon terrorist organizations.
It remains to be seen how the engagement between the Taliban and the US goes ahead.
Script: Kallol Bhattacherjee, Special Correspondent, The Hindu