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Kabul should work for an all-inclusive political structure, not create roadblocks

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President Trump at Bagram Air Base in Kabul in November 2019

When Afghanistan’s ‘Loya Jirga’ arrived at a consensus on the release of Taliban fighters, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani passed an order to release 400 Taliban fighters and commanders. It seemed that the last bottleneck in the ‘intra-Afghan’ dialogue had been removed and that the country will now quickly move towards an intensive and extensive period of negotiations. 

But the Ghani administration did not take more than a few days to halt prisoner release, reinforcing yet again the fact that the Afghan conundrum is a lot more complex than meets the eye. There are more roadblocks on the ‘highway to peace’ than one imagines. 

The Ghani government’s decision shows that the consensus developed at the ‘Loya Jirga’ was fragile with no strong political roots.  Kabul seems to have its own doubts vis-à-vis Taliban’s hardcore prisoners. Hence, the decision to review the release order and enhance the scope of consultations on the matter. 

Releasing prisoners who have been incarcerated for crimes is unacceptable to me and to others in our society,” said Mawloda Tawana, a member of the Jirga committee. “We still hold bitter memories of the dark period of the Taliban regime and no one I know is satisfied with the release of any prisoner. We also feel that our presence and role in this Jirga is very symbolic. It seems to us that the Afghan government and the United States have already finalized the release and it does not matter what we decide,” she added. 

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There is a growing realization in Kabul that the hurry that Tawana and many others have noticed has a lot to do with how the political landscape is shaping in the United States. 

As the latest polls show, US President Donald Trump is trailing Joe Biden, with the latter establishing a double-digit lead over the former. 

With Trump’s trade war on China having already backfired both economically and politically, and bad management of COVID-19 eating into the vitals of the Trump Presidency, the administration seems to be banking upon the Afghan question and looking for a political opportunity for its quick resolution, even if it comes at the expense of the all the progress that Afghanistan has made towards an elected Presidential system in the last two decades.  

In this context, Kabul seems to be adopting ‘delaying tactics’, waiting mainly for the elections in the US to be over, hoping that a Biden Presidency may not be ‘too soft’ on the Taliban and that a Democratic government may even change the rules of the game, pushing the Taliban to make some important political compromises, including on the question of the rights and status of women in Afghanistan and the future political set-up of the country. 

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For Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun and non-Taliban groups, only a de-centralised system, not severely dependent upon a Taliban-dominated Kabul, can salvage the war-torn country from war. 

While this may be an ambitious goal, Kabul’s approach, however, does involve the risk of throwing the entire peace process into the dustbin of political expediency.

If, on the one hand, the Trump’s administration’s impatient approach risks acquiescing to the Taliban and making them the country’s sole dominant force, Kabul’s ‘delaying tactics’ may force the whole process to collapse, taking Afghanistan back to square one. 

For Kabul, which is already abiding by an agreement it was never a party to, an additional worrying sign is that the whole process is driven by Washington’s desire to pull US troops out of Afghanistan. 

As it stands, Joe Biden, too, shares the same view. The US Defense establishment, too, has been moving in the same direction. Accordingly, it has already closed five of its military bases and reduced the number of troops from 13,000 to 8600. This process is unlikely to be reversed even if Biden wins, although he may slow it down a bit to put pressure on the Taliban and not give them an absolute walk over; for, this will also be tantamount to an absolute military defeat for the US. 

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What, however, Kabul can and must do, is develop a strong political consensus around some fundamental questions of Afghanistan’s political future, linking it not just with a ‘power-sharing’ arrangement between Kabul and the Taliban but with the constitutional protection of the fundamental rights of all the political and social forces present in Afghanistan’s political landscape. 

As such, Kabul’s salvation lies not in delaying the process, but in rallying all political forces around and establishing a strong political front that can focus its attention and energy on maintaining a plural system, one that has ample space to absorb both the Taliban and non-Taliban forces. 

Such a move, involving Afghanistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, will be a strong political front, not allowing the Taliban to slip to an ultra-conservative political and religious position and take Afghanistan back to the 1990s.