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March 13, 2018

The road to peace


March 13, 2018

The insurgency in Afghanistan continues to unsettle regional security and stability. With fingers being pointed at Pakistan for backing Afghan insurgent factions and consequently destabilising the region, it is very important that we: a) find common ground with Kabul in allaying mistrust; and b) offer our offices to find a political solution.

All’s well and good. For our part, we have pledged support to peace and a peaceful solution to the conflict. We have also rightly asked our erstwhile allies to honestly appraise the roots of the conflict and the ways to end the impasse.

However, the complication arises from finding that one magical formula. Political solutions for insurgencies are undoubtedly the best option but are also the hardest to achieve. It is not surprising to see that after more than 16 years of conflict, Afghanistan continues to frustrate multiple efforts to end the insurgency. So far, the approach has been contradictory, ensuring the failure of an initiative that involves the offering of an olive branch under the shadow of a gun. There is little to wonder then that past peace efforts failed spectacularly owing to the maximalist positions taken by both Kabul and the insurgents. Neither side was willing to concede the extra inch.

However, the recent incentive-heavy offer made by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has given real hope. The offer is encouraging, despite the latest attack by the Taliban on Afghan security forces in the Bala Bulukh district in the western province of Farah, which resulted in at least two dozen deaths. Why? Because the offer to the Taliban gives them due recognition as a political force and one that Kabul is ready to negotiate with.

Hopefully the Bala Bulukh attack will not change Kabul’s position. The onus to find a political solution to the conflict is on Ghani’s government. It might also be true that the spate of deadly attacks by the Taliban since the start of this year proved a catalyst for Kabul to finally realise the implications of allowing the conflict to fester further. Someone had to make concessions. As expected, the Taliban’s rejection to hold talks with Kabul, and their readiness to only talk directly to the US – which they deem is the ‘occupying power’ – is but a reiteration of the insurgents’ estimation of the Afghan government. It is clearly not the diplomatic response one could hope for from the Taliban. For them it is the US calling the shots in Afghanistan, so why bother talking to the Afghan government.

The rejection is also not feasible given the presence of a legitimate government in Kabul – irrespective of how much of a puppet regime it is considered by those fighting it. The Taliban’s high-handedness has also surfaced in the rejection of the forthcoming ulema conference, scheduled to take place in Indonesia this month. The Indonesian government’s decision to host a meeting that would include religious scholars from Indonesia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, for the sake of reaching a mutual agreement or fatwa to resolve the conflict through peace talks, was promptly dismissed. In fact, the Taliban advised against participating in such conferences which they believe are an attempt to mislead the Islamic world about the true nature of the sacred jihad they are waging against the ‘infidels’.

Alas, negotiations work when both parties consider it the best option. At present, the Taliban control in Afghanistan is significant and they do not seem to be lacking in resources to be forced to come to the table. The fact remains that their strength lies in their support-base – the local population – irrespective of how much blame is laid across the Durand Line for the aid it allegedly provides to fuel the insurgency. Otherwise, it would have been impossible for an insurgency to have come so far and run so long.

The uprising might not be showing any signs of dying, but there is a glimmer of hope. It is possible that exhaustion and possible cracks within the insurgent ranks have set in, or the overture to Washington to hold direct talks bypassing Kabul might never have been made. And if so, what are the chances that Washington in the future will not retract its initial response about involving Kabul in the talks, and instead send Mattis or Tillerson to talk to the Taliban shura? After all, if Trump can do the unthinkable and agree to meet Kim Jong-un, sending global diplomatic circles into overdrive and risking US credibility, holding direct talks with the Taliban might not be that bad an option. If it means ending a protracted expensive war then it is probably worth it.

Political legitimacy is sought by most insurgents and the Taliban are only reclaiming what they had before, post-9/11. However much the differences in ideology and objectives among the Afghan stakeholders are played up, it is a political fight at the end of the day. More importantly, it is incredibly important not to lose this opportunity, no matter how small it might be. The rest will fall in place, eventually.

The writer is a former deputy opinion

editor at Gulf News, Dubai.

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