Afghan peace talks a ray of hope in troubled region

Afghan peace talks a ray of hope in troubled region

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Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, in Doha, Qatar, Feb., 29, 2020. (Reuters)

When it comes to regional peace and stability, there’s not much to be optimistic about in South Asia these days. 

The India-Pakistan relationship is ice cold thanks to a military crisis in February 2019 and India’s decision last August to revoke the special autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir — a move that Islamabad deemed unilateral and illegal. Neither side is expressing any desire for dialogue these days. Official messaging is often dominated by insults.

Meanwhile, the region’s most powerful players, India and China, are mired in a tense border spat. A clash in the Galwan Valley area of Ladakh last week turned deadly, with 20 Indian fatalities and an undetermined number of Chinese casualties. These mark the first combat fatalities along the disputed India-China border in several decades, and they badly complicate a recently initiated military-to-military dialogue meant to de-escalate a standoff that began in May. As things stand today, Sino-Indian tensions are sharper than they have been at any time in many years.

This means that the nuclear-armed India-Pakistan-China triangle is rife with volatility. India’s ties with Islamabad and Beijing are dangerously tense, even as those two countries — New Delhi’s biggest rivals — continue to strengthen their own long-standing partnership.

There is also trouble elsewhere. India is embroiled in an ugly border spat with Nepal. Many Indian commentators believe Beijing is pressuring Kathmandu to take an uncompromising position toward New Delhi. 

Compounding these tensions is the fact that the region is hardwired for diplomatic tension. South Asia’s main regional organization, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation — an institution that theoretically should serve as a vehicle for collaboration — has been hampered by ineffectiveness that is largely due to the India-Pakistan problem. South Asia also lacks connectivity. Poor regional infrastructure (roads, electricity grids and the like) makes it one of the least-integrated regions in the world. Not surprisingly, intraregional trade, ordinarily a useful way to build trust, is woefully low.

All this bad news makes all the more encouraging the recent news from Afghanistan that the government and the Taliban have agreed to a venue — Doha — to hold the first round of formal talks, known as an intra-Afghan dialogue, between the two sides. Talks are expected to begin once a prisoner release arrangement — a feature from a deal inked between the US government and the Taliban in February — is completed.

Years ago, even months ago, the idea of launching formal peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban would have sounded pollyannaish, if not outright delusional. Over the last decade-plus, occasional efforts to launch negotiations have failed, and the war has dragged on and on. However, again and again, Afghanistan’s new peace and reconciliation process defies the prognostications of pessimists who vow that the process will never go forward.

Pessimists said talks between Washington and the Taliban were bound to fail. Then they said that the obstacles to launching the intra-Afghan dialogue — political dysfunction in Kabul, a spat between President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival Abdullah Abdullah, and the prisoner release agreement — were too onerous to overcome. And yet each obstacle has been overcome, and the first ever effort to end the war is about to take shape.

To be sure, pessimism is still in order. It is unclear whether the Taliban is truly committed to negotiating a peace deal — especially as any political settlement would entail sharing power within a system that it has long rejected and with leaders that it has sought to overthrow by force. Additionally, with Washington telegraphing its intention to remove all American troops by next spring, the Taliban may conclude its best bet is not negotiating with the government, but waiting the Americans out and returning to the battlefield once they have headed for the exits. The idea would be to take advantage of a tremendous battlefield advantage and to attempt to gain total power through force, as opposed to gaining partial power through negotiations.

In effect, those calling for optimism now may find themselves on the defensive later if the intra-Afghan dialogue — by far the most complex and challenging aspect of the peace process — fails to get off the ground or collapses due to the Taliban’s unwillingness to be a true peace partner.

Again and again, Afghanistan’s new peace and reconciliation process defies the prognostications of pessimists.

Michael Kugelman

However, for now, it is still well worth being optimistic about the best opportunity yet to end a US-led war that has raged on for nearly 20 years — and that has intensified in recent years, with record-breaking levels of casualties for Afghan security forces and civilians alike. 

With so many troubling developments playing out elsewhere around South Asia, any opportunity to bring the region’s longest-running conflict to an end deserves to be supported, warts and all.

  • Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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