In an effort to bring an end to the long war in Afghanistan, US representatives have begun talks with the Taliban as the power struggle continues ahead of planned presidential elections later this year. Edward Thicknesse evaluates the key roles of other Asian nations – especially Pakistan –in the peace process
All the signs are that President Trump is becoming increasingly frustrated by the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Seventeen years since the fall of the Taliban government, the prospect of a military solution still seems distant.
America is estimated to have spent a trillion dollars of taxpayers’ money on the conflict and roughly two and a half thousand American service personnel have been killed. General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently described the military situation as a ‘stalemate’ with limited grounds for optimism.
Yet there are now concerted attempts to break the deadlock through diplomacy. President Trump has appointed Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the Department of State, to lead the US effort, which included three days of talks between the US representatives and the Taliban leadership in Qatar last November.
The negotiatons represent a considerable breakthrough – as well as a concession – for the United States, which previously demanded that the Taliban negotiate directly with the government of President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.
The Pakistan factor
Pakistan, which the US has historically accused of harbouring Taliban militants, including the notorious Haqqani network, will be a key player in the peace process.Yet the tension between the US and Pakistan was clearly demonstrated in an exchange of messages between President Trump and Prime Minister Imran Khan last year.
Mr Trump suggested that Pakistan ‘has not done a damn thing to help us’, while Mr Khan responded by telling the Washington Post that ‘I would never want to have a relationship where Pakistan is treated like a hired gun, given money to fight someone else’s war. We should never put ourselves in this position again. It not only cost us human lives and devastation of our tribal areas but it also cost us our dignity. We would like a proper relationship with the US.’
Nevertheless, President Trump has spoken of ‘renewing the partnership’ with Pakistan and Mr Khan has pledged to support the peace effort. He told the Washington Post: ‘The last thing we want is to have chaos in Afghanistan. There should be a settlement this time.’
Sana Safi, Senior Presenter for the BBC News Pashto Service, says: ‘For Afghans, Mr Khan is a controversial figure because he voiced some controversial opinions about the Afghan War, even calling it a “jihad”. Nevertheless, when he took office last year, he pledged to open the borders and enable trade. That was an offer which was welcomed by the people in Afghanistan. They hope it marks a new chapter in the relationship.’
Perhaps one of the reasons behind the apparent inconsistency in Mr Khan’s approach towards Afghanistan is the recognition that his political influence is limited. ‘Most people think that it is the military, not the civilian government, which really runs Pakistan’s foreign policy,’ says Ms Safi.
Another influential factor in deciding Pakistan’s approach towards international relations is the country’s relationship with China. China has offered Pakistan $62 billion in grants and soft loans towards infrastructure projects. Pakistan has become one of the key locations for China’s Belt and Road initiative.
The investments are regarded as an alternative to relying on money from the United States, which has cut back on its grants to Pakistan. They also position China as an important partner; one with an agenda for Asia which is quite different to that of America.
Time is ticking
Another sensitive issue facing the negotiators is a timeline. Special Representative Khalilzad has expressed his hope that a peace deal might be reached before 20 April, 2019, the date set for the next Afghan presidential elections. The view from Islamabad, however, is that any such process will be anything but swift. Other critics warn that setting a deadline grants the Taliban considerable power in the negotiations.
The human factor
The route forward might include a shift in the way the people from Afghanistan and Pakistan perceive one another. Both countries have young populations but their citizens have limited interaction.
Suddaf Chaudry, a freelance journalist and broadcaster specialising in South Asia, hopes that there can be a shift away from the long-entrenched narrative of distrust. She says that despite a lack of understanding on both sides, there is now a far greater appetite to learn about what’s going on across the border.
Ms Chaudry cites the growing influence of the Pashtun Protection Movement, a grass-roots campaign from Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa protesting Islamabad’s treatment of the 30 million Pashtun that make up Pakistan’s second largest ethnic group. The movement’s 23-year-old leader, Manzoor Pashteen, was voted Herald magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ for 2018.
Whether or not a peace settlement is achievable in Afghanistan before 20 April, there is a strong chance that the presidential election will be delayed to accommodate developments in the negotiations. Thus far, the Taliban have refused to deal directly with the Kabul administration.
Previous polls have served as flashpoints for widespread insecurity across the country. In October’s parliamentary elections, more than 170 people were killed or wounded in bombings and rocket attacks on the first day of voting.
If the presidential elections are delayed beyond April, it will likely trigger outrage from President Ghani’s opponents, who suspect him of trying to engineer a second term in office. But to stage elections, especially if the American peace effort has gathered traction, could trigger another wave of violence.
With lawlessness at its peak and unemployment at endemic levels, the route forward is anything but clear. For everyday citizens, however, the priority remains a simple one. In the view of Sana Safi, ‘people just want to survive’.