OPINION: Will Afghan peace talks commence?

NEW DELHI (The Statesman/ANN) -  President Ashraf Ghani recently gave a call for talks with the Taliban, while addressing an international conference in Kabul. He offered to allow the Taliban to establish itself as a political party as also work to removing sanctions against it in addition to other incentives. There have been mixed responses to the Afghan President’s call.

One report stated that the Taliban were cool to the offer, while another said they were willing to negotiate, but would do so only with the US. In their opinion, the present government is a puppet regime, installed by the US and has adopted American policies.

All nations involved in the conflict, including Pakistan, supported the announcement made by President Ghani and encouraged the Taliban to come forward. India even raised the offer in the UN demanding nations with influence on the Taliban to push it for talks.

Just prior to the call for talks was the path-breaking ceremony for the launch of the Afghan portion of the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) pipeline at Herat in Afghanistan. TAPI is expected to transfer natural gas from Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The ceremony was attended by the Presidents of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, Prime Minister of Pakistan and the Indian MoS for External Affairs, MJ Akbar. TAPI is expected to provide a revenue of between $400 to 500 million annually from transit duties to Afghanistan.

The Taliban realising the potential income, which could be a boost in the long term, immediately offered to support the pipeline and even promised cooperation in providing security in the areas under its control.

For them, the pipeline implies many advantages. Firstly, it would earn from ensuring security in its territory. Secondly, if it does come to power in Kabul, this would be an invaluable foreign exchange earning source annually.

Finally, by hiring locals in its region of control, it could generate goodwill. The question remains whether this offer by the Taliban could be considered an expression of its desire to join talks or was it in made for a narrow self-interest?

The Taliban had in early February published an open letter addressed to the American public expressing a desire for talks. The letter called on the ‘American people’ to pressurise the Donald Trump administration into negotiations.

The US, on the other hand, has always insisted that the talks would be led by the Afghan government. Even Pakistan had been stating that the only solution to the conflict is Afghan-led talks. Thus, it is possible that the present offer by President Ghani is a result of this letter.

Another plausible reason for both to contemplate talks is the resurgence of the ISIS in Afghanistan. With the ISIS losing most of its territory in Syria and Iraq, it now needs new regions to reinvent itself.

Afghanistan, presently in a state of confusion, is ideal. Its presence in the country has been established and is worrisome for all of Afghanistan’s neighbours.

Both the Taliban and the Afghan government are battling ISIS. In case the Taliban is willing to come forward for talks, then the concentration of forces could shift against the ISIS.

The Taliban on the other hand, apart from being sheltered by Pakistan has been in dialogue for multiple reasons with Russia, China and Iran. All these nations, though vehemently opposed to the US, also have a stake in securing peace in Afghanistan.

The spread of ISIS in the region would be detrimental to all of them. For China, its investment in the CPEC is likely to be impacted by the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.

Hence it would desire peace. In the present environment, all neighbouring nations would prefer that the US remains in the country for the present, providing security and helping to contain the ISIS.

The Taliban controls or influences almost fifty Afghan districts. From their bases in Pakistan, they can launch direct attacks on Kabul, which they have been doing.

Hence it is essential to force them out of Pakistan to increase pressure on them. However, its suicide attacks in Kabul resulting in mass casualties would have impacted its support base.

It is only when the Taliban realises that it is in a stalemate situation would it be willing to accept talks, which is possibly the state at present. In addition, it would also be facing pressure from Pakistan, which remains under international scrutiny for its links with the Taliban.

Hence the Taliban leadership would have been compelled to recalibrate its strategy.

The US, while calling for the Taliban to accept the offer for talks, has been unrelenting with its on pressure on Pakistan, to stop supporting the group and to push the leadership across the border.

This pressure has been mounted from multiple directions. Stopping aid, cross-border drone strikes and even through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

The US is also aware that Pakistan can be pushed thus far and no more, as it still needs to depend on Pakistani facilities and airspace.

Thus, in the overall context there has been a forward movement, though small. Talks are being mentioned, with both sides still waiting for the other to take the first step.

If the US comes in for direct negotiations, the Kabul government would be left embarrassed. Maintaining the legitimacy of the government is essential, despite all its shortcomings.

The US may remain present at the table for discussions, but the leadership role would need to be played by the Kabul government. It is against this backdrop that the US recently refused to commence direct negotiations with the Taliban.

These are still early days, but the signs appear positive. Afghanistan has witnessed immense bloodshed and deserves peace and stability.

Pressure on the Taliban must continue from multiple directions to compel it to reduce its acts of violence and adopt steps for peace. Pakistan has a direct influence on the Taliban hence it should continue to be pushed to the wall, to enhance pressure for talks.

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.

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