Peace may remain elusive despite Afghanistan talks

Peace may remain elusive despite Afghanistan talks

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

As Afghan leaders this month descended on the plush confines of one of Doha’s leading hotels, many were surprised as long-term foes embraced one another. The Taliban and the Afghan government are engaged in talks to decide no less daunting a prospect than the future of Afghanistan.
How a country that has been ravaged by war for more than four decades will be able to chart a course toward peace and prosperity is the central issue for the conference. With the Taliban’s deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar claiming that he wants “a free, independent, united and developed country,” many have been left wondering what sort of future the Taliban will agree to — if indeed it does at all.
Since 1979, Afghanistan has been host to almost perpetual conflict. The displacement of many millions and the deaths of some 2 million have been the human cost of the country’s turbulence. In more recent times, the American engagement in Afghanistan has cost it just short of $1 trillion, as US forces struggled to grapple with the infamously turbulent central Asian state.
Having struck an agreement with the Taliban in February, the US has followed the lead of its president and chosen to turn its back on one of the “forever wars” in which the US was engaged. However, the “peace” that has followed has been tenuous at best. As Afghan leaders gather to negotiate in Qatar, the country essentially remains in a state of civil war.
As bloodshed continues without any sort of peace deal on the horizon, many are concerned as to whether this round of negotiations will be different from any of the countless others that preceded it. American diplomats have been hesitant to give the talks their full backing. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was keen to link future US aid to peaceful negotiations, saying: “Your choices and conduct will affect the size and scope of future US assistance.” This may be the encouragement that either side needs, though the Taliban is incredibly more long-term in its approach and has long awaited a US withdrawal, knowing full well that it can rule Afghanistan with few challenges and much like it did in the 1990s.
After two decades of the most advanced military equipment and billions of dollars of aid being ploughed into Afghanistan to try and change the country’s political dynamics, the Taliban is now, in fact, larger than it was in 2001. With a monopoly over violence, it has been able to belittle the efforts of the government while simultaneously making itself a potential partner for negotiation and a central pillar to peace. The very fact that the US sat down with the Taliban to negotiate is testament to the group’s strength and influence on the ground.
Where the internationally supported Afghan government has shown itself to be victim to the venal and corrupt practices of its unlikely leadership, the Taliban has shown itself to be resolute in its almost sacred defense of Afghanistan in the eyes of many Afghan people. However, despite the conflict with which Afghanistan is synonymous, fatigue has set in, encouraging both sides to look toward taking a real step to the future.
Both sides came to the negotiations with a great amount of skepticism; not knowing what the other side’s agenda was in calling for the talks. The government side was skeptical that the Taliban was pursuing the negotiations to distract American interests, while the Taliban was concerned that the government would deliberately delay while waiting for a change in US administration and thereby a change in attitudes.
Come November, the deal that the Americans reached with the Taliban will very much come into effect, as troop numbers are expected to be down to 4,500. The strategic reality of this has been that the Taliban thought to take part in these negotiations only to play for time ahead of the American withdrawal. The group is perhaps using this time to regroup as part of a broader attempt at taking central control and conducting an all-important march on Kabul. With American forces reduced to a token number, the country’s capital and delicate democracy will be open to manipulation. Given the billions that have been spent by the international community on aid and reconstruction, the idea that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan could come back into existence is incredibly concerning.
Synonymous with public executions, acts of terror and indeed as a harbor for splinter terrorist organizations, ending Taliban rule in Afghanistan was the focus of international military and political efforts in the country. However, the Taliban has remained and both earlier this year and now, during negotiations in Doha, its leaders seem incredibly coy about their plans for Afghanistan.

As Afghan leaders gather to negotiate in Qatar, the country essentially remains in a state of civil war.

Zaid M. Belbagi

Many are concerned about what the Taliban policy will be toward Afghan women. Having only just been given the opportunity to educate themselves and participate in Afghan society, many fear that a Taliban government would cause a return to rigid fundamentalist rules and values, akin to the former “emirate.”
With the government and its President Ashraf Ghani viewed by many as foreign puppets, there is a real possibility that the Taliban will be able to exploit this standpoint with a view to re-establishing its writ across the war-torn country. There is, however, an issue with this: The Taliban represents the views of the conservative and martial Pashtun people and their heartland in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whether or not the views of this particular demographic will be forced upon the rest of the country remains to be seen.
Afghanistan has for decades been a source of great instability, with the long-suffering Afghan people its victims. Blessed with an important location, significant natural resources and upright and hardworking people, only through peace can the country be expected to fulfill its potential.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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