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Intra-Afghan peace conference hits a snag

Col (r) Ikram Ullah Khan

The US-orchestrated intra-Afghan peace conference that was scheduled to be held in Istanbul on April 24 has been postponed sine die. The conference which was to be co-hosted by the UN, Qatar and Turkey hit a snag after Taliban refused to attend it as according to them the US has backtracked on the tripartite Doha agreement of February 2020 that involved the trio i.e. the US, the Afghan government and the Taliban. The agreement was made possible with the hectic shuttle diplomacy undertaken by the US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad duly backed by Pakistan and Qatar.

According to the Doha agreement, Donald Trump’s administration had agreed to withdraw all the foreign forces from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, which, according to Taliban, President Joe Biden failed to honour by setting a fresh deadline of September 11, 2021. The Taliban consider it as a brazen violation and breach of the Doha agreement. They have shown their disapproval of and indignation over this violation by declining to attend the Istanbul peace conference despite an intense shuttle diplomacy by the US through his special envoy to Afghanistan to persuade Taliban to attend the conference.  However, the main reason for Taliban’s refusal to attend the conference seems to be their unwillingness to enter into any deal that ends with a power-sharing with the Afghan government thinking that it would be detrimental to the fundamental cause for which they have been fighting ever since they were overthrown by the US in 2001. It is pertinent to mention here that the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

Despite the stunning setback to its latest peace initiative, the US seems determined to continue its diplomatic efforts more vigorously to secure a peace deal before leaving Afghanistan because it’s important for the US to have an honourable exit and also to secure some sort of face-saving. In this connection, the US may use the good offices of Pakistan, if need be, to engage the Taliban and to persuade them to agree to come to a negotiating table with the Afghan government in order to reach a peace agreement. The Taliban despite maintaining a tough posture towards the US have a realization that it would be difficult for them to keep themselves out of the peace negotiations for long and that it would be to their advantage to resume the peace dialogue because they can’t afford to risk losing the international recognition and legitimacy they are presently enjoying.

Moreover, the US has a grim realization that in the absence of a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan would be disastrous for stability in Afghanistan and would embolden the Taliban to carry out insurgent activities with renewed vigour, thus placing the Afghanistan government at a weaker position and leaving it with fewer cards to bargain with. The US before leaving Afghanistan wants firm commitments from the Taliban to cease insurgent activities and come to terms with the Afghan government which is necessary for an enduring peace in the region, but the Taliban seem to be unwilling to agree to such kind of commitment, at least for the time being.

The Istanbul peace conference was aimed at fast-tracking a peace agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government following the announcement by the US President Joe Biden that coalition forces would leave Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. The US is trying to end the long-drawn war in Afghanistan through intra-Afghan peace negotiations in order to have an honourable exit from Afghanistan lest it may be a repeat of a Vietnam-like situation for the US. President Joe Biden acknowledged in his address to the Americans the other day that nothing could be achieved by retaining coalition forces in Afghanistan and that all the forces would be pulled out by September 11. He said: “We can’t continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result.”

It may be recalled that Taliban and Afghan government negotiators began peace talks in February 2020 but the process was painfully slow and couldn’t achieve the desired results. To speed up the process that could pave the way for a smooth withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan, the US attempted to hold a peace conference in Turkey that was to be attended by over 20 countries and global bodies which, to the much dismay of the US, has received a frigid response from the Taliban.

After waging a pointless long-drawn war of attrition spanning over two decades, perhaps the longest war in American history ever fought by the US heading an allied force comprising more than a dozen countries with latest war machinery against a handful Taliban with no regular military training and without latest weaponry and air power, and after having squandered trillions of dollars that has done an incalculable damage to its economy and reputation, the US has finally come to the conclusion that it’s well-nigh impossible to vanquish Afghan Taliban who turn out to be a hard nut to crack. The US knows that the Taliban are the same stuff assuming a different name that put up a tough and determined fight against the erstwhile Soviet Union for almost ten years ultimately forcing the Soviet forces to leave Afghanistan empty handed.

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