Afghan peace and inclusive government
President Joe Biden of the US had announced withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan by September 11, without setting any conditions. NATO also toed the line to pull out all of its roughly 7,000 troops by the same date. As a follow-up, General Scott Miller, the US commander in Afghanistan, announced that foreign troops had begun vacating military bases. As a consequence, a peace conference in Istanbul starting April 24, to accelerate the resolution of conflict between the Taliban and the Afghan government, hit a setback and has been postponed with no new date in sight.
Although the announcement of the withdrawal is not only morale boosting for the Taliban but has also geared their levers in diplomacy, it has bewildered other stakeholders within Afghanistan and around, with an apprehension of the security vacuum.
The Taliban negotiated with the Afghan government over a peace settlement, adamant to gain power to the exclusion of others. They also went on a killing spree, targeting government officials, activists, and journalists and other civilians. Despite backtracking on all major commitments undertaken in the agreement with the US, they made Biden agree to the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.
This move is a demonstration of the fact that superpowers are driven by realism and not idealism, with vital national interest being the paramount consideration in decision-making. Notions such as democracy, human rights, gender mainstreaming, eradication of poverty and improving governance are secondary. As such maximisation of national interest, security and power are the major determinants in the formulation of a foreign policy. Nation states adjust keeping in view those elements, while dealing with other states and non-state actors. Besides this, tactics keep on changing from overt to covert modes to achieve strategic objectives.
The phenomenon of peace in Afghanistan, if analysed from that perspective is neither a surprise nor a concern. The US did not intervene either to bolster the democracy or for better governance. Her own security compulsion and not the Taliban’s style of government was the reason for intervention, with an aim to destroy and dismantle the networks of the Al Qaeda, who were striking at her vital national interests. Having achieved that objective, the US reoriented her policy by seeking guarantees from the Taliban to not allow Afghan soil to be used as a launching pad against US interests. The US, in order to preserve her own national interests, is in the process of evolving new arrangements to counter anticipated threats of terrorism from Afghanistan.
The US has planned to reposition some of its forces in neighbouring countries to Afghanistan after it withdraws from the country. “We are further planning now for continuing counterterrorism operations within the region, ensuring that the violent extremist organisations fighting for their existence in the hinterlands of Afghanistan remain under persistent surveillance and pressure.” This was the new approach given by Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie before a Congressional hearing. He expressed his grave doubts about the Taliban’s reliability and stated the group would need to be observed regarding what they are going to do in Afghanistan. In the same vein, he made it clear that “if they want any form of future international recognition for Afghanistan … they’re going to have to keep the agreements that they’ve made.”
Analysed in this background, we have to find what could be the other possible US interest in the region. The containment of China’s growing military and economic power in the Indo-Pacific region, balancing Iran and Russia, reconciliation between two nuclear powers (Pakistan and India) as well as Russia, and countering terrorism appear to be the paramount considerations. Arguably, in such a situation, the US will not like to give a unilateral role either to Russia or any other power at her own expense. Only an equilibrium of all superpowers and regional countries can ensure comprehensive peace and inclusive government in Afghanistan.
In this context, the role of the United Nations has assumed a greater importance, and appears to be central to resolve the contentious issues to the satisfaction of all stakeholders within Afghanistan. There appears to be a consensus to station UN peacekeeping forces to monitor the intra-Afghan negotiations till a settlement over the issues of future political setup and sharing of power has been reached. Free and fair elections may also be held under the auspices of the UN. The announcement of the appointment of mediator Jean Arnault as the new personal envoy of the Secretary General on Afghanistan and Regional Issues is an indicator. The responsibilities include to liaise, on behalf of the Secretary General, with regional countries with the aim of supporting the negotiations between Afghanistan and the Taliban and implementation of any agreements reached.
Although the Taliban have apparently, in order to consolidate gains, stayed away from the negotiations in Turkey and insisted on the continuation of the Doha process, backchannel contacts have also been developed with the Taliban. Efforts are underway to convince the Taliban that such abstentions or boycotts may alienate them from the international community. Pakistan, Turkey and Afghanistan, in a recent meeting in Turkey, called for an immediate ceasefire to end the existing high level of violence. The tripartite conference’s resolution is a reminder to the Taliban to provide a conducive environment for peace talks, for sustainable peace through an inclusive Afghan-led and Afghan-owned political process aiming at a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire to end conflict in Afghanistan. The realisation of being isolated may bring the Taliban back to the negotiation table. But, before any such eventuality, they would like to consolidate their gains on the ground.
Having said this, the Taliban have to agree to a common ground in order to solicit the support of the international community. For this they have to agree to sit on a negotiation table. They have to realise that they are not the sole stakeholders in Afghanistan and the Government of Afghanistan and other groups also exist. All stakeholders have to think over a win-win situation, by accommodating each other. Maximisation of power will either lead to more violence or to a totalitarian regime. Inclusive government elected through free and fair elections will lead to sustainable peace. The Constitution of Pakistan is a good model that gives space to all shades of opinion and may be followed. The Taliban must seize this opportunity for a durable peace in Afghanistan.