Afghanistan’s fleeting opportunity for peace

The president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, longs for a respite to the relentless fighting which has raged through his country for the past 17 years. This autumn, he has proposed an extended ceasefire to coincide with fresh diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict.

His prayers for peace are supported by the UN Secretary General’s representative to Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, who said, ‘I sincerely hope the feeling of solidarity marked by the sacred occasion of Eidul Adha will encourage all parties to refrain from violence, enabling constructive steps leading to a durable peace.’

Back in June, there was a brief lull in hostilities. A ceasefire held for three days during the Eid holiday at the end of the month of Ramadan. Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine another truce, especially a prolonged one. The Taliban refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the Afghan government and continues to try to expel American soldiers, bringing great misery to ordinary Afghan citizens in the process. Another militant group, Islamic State, is as violent and uncooperative as ever.

Furthermore, Taliban militants tend to fight more brutally when people are trying to lure them into peace talks; they perceive violence as a way of gaining influence at the negotiating table.

Nevertheless, there will be a fresh attempt at reaching a peace deal at a conference hosted by Russia, which will take place this month. Without some kind of negotiated settlement, the war will drag on indefinitely – unless there is a decisive military outcome, which seems unlikely at this stage.

The Taliban will send their political representatives to Russia but the Afghan government will not attend. Neither will the United States. However, the Russian foreign ministry has invited 11 other countries, including important regional players such as Pakistan, India, China and Iran.

Russia is not the ideal host, given America’s claim that the Russians supply arms and equipment to Taliban fighters. But at least the meeting provides a forum at which people can say what a peaceful outcome would look like to them – even if the voices disagree and representation is incomplete.

The United States currently has about 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, including those training forces loyal to the government. The Trump Administration does not want the soldiers to be stranded there indefinitely, which is why US diplomats spoke directly with the Taliban in Doha in July. Taliban sources said the talks ended with ‘very positive signals’ and a decision to hold more meetings.

The Taliban is an organisation which thrives in instability and ethnic rivalry. Some of its members approve of a negotiated peace, while others are determined to fight on until an extremist Islamist state is created, with their leaders in control. They all want the Americans to leave.

That resentment against the United States and Russia places a special responsibility on Asian leaders to work together to try to sort out Afghanistan’s problems. Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, and the Pakistani military could play a crucial role. Mr Khan has sent mixed signals, sometimes condemning terrorism but also at times appearing to tacitly support some of the Taliban’s objectives. He has promised to travel to Kabul to discuss the situation with President Ghani soon. The outcome of that meeting could be as influential on the peace process as the conference taking place in Russia.

Together, these events create a moment of opportunity for Afghanistan. Allowing militant groups to enter the political process carries risk but so does excluding them and letting the matter be sorted out by rockets and roadside bombs. Better by far to get as many people around the negotiating table as possible. A settlement seems far off but, as the short truce in June showed, there are many people crying out for peace.

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