Is the new push for Afghan peace genuine?
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during an unannounced visit to Kabul on July 09 that there was “now hope” for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. “An element of the progress is the capacity that we now have to believe that there is now hope,” Pompeo told a press conference. “Many of the Taliban now see that they can’t win on the ground militarily. That’s very deeply connected to President Trump’s strategy… Make no mistake, there’s still a great deal of work to do”, he added.
However, recent BBC study reveals that Taliban are openly active in 70 per cent of Afghanistan; Afghan government controls 122 districts, or about 30 per cent of the country. Yet, it does not mean that government controlled territories are free from Taliban attacks. “Kabul and other major cities, for example, suffered major attacks – launched from adjacent areas, or by sleeper cells,” the report said.
When asked about the BBC’s study, the Pentagon did not comment directly, but pointed to the latest figures by the NATO-led coalition, asserting that about 56 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory was under Afghan government control or influence. The study quoted a spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani playing down the findings. The BBC study also said Islamic State had a presence in 30 districts, but noted it did not fully control any of them.
Earlier Taliban had refused the government’s request to extend their three-day Eid ceasefire, launching fresh attacks that have seen scores killed or injured. Resurgence of insider attacks after almost a year’s gap also belies Pompeo’s claims. President Ashraf Ghani thanked Pompeo for US support, hailing Trump’s strategy as a “game changer” in the conflict. Pompeo said while the United States would have an “important” role in peace talks, the process must be Afghan-led. Taliban’s key demands for engaging in talks has been the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, but observers say they now appear amenable to a timetable for their pull-out. However, Taliban have rejected the latest peace talks offer. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Taliban “are not interested in talks while foreign troops are still on Afghan soil.” Mujahid also repeated long-standing Taliban claims that Afghan government officials are “puppets. Renewed violence and the Taliban’s recent vow to continue their fight has dampened hopes that the truce would provide a clear path to peace talks.
Ambassador Alice G Wells, US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, visits Islamabad [and Kabul] so frequently that Pakistan’s foreign office might be thinking of offering her complimentary accommodation for setting up Islamabad camp office! Beyond routines Wells has a special assignment: to hold Taliban by their throat and present them to President Ashraf Ghani, as soon as possible. Ghani already has an America dictated power sharing draft agreement in his pocket. And American support for granting him blanket clearance for rigging his second term election is contingent upon making reasonable performance on this track. Both Afghanistan and the US want to reach some kind of deal with the Taliban before the parliamentary elections due later this year. Hence Wells’ urgency!
Arduous challenge for Alice is that Taliban insist on talking directly to the US, as they think that present status of Afghanistan is of a country under American occupation. So they want to engage with the power that be—ostensibly, logical thinking.
With focus on Taliban, Wells is putting in strenuous effort to steer the Pak-US relationship clear of mines laid by President Donal Trump. During her latest visit, she reiterated that Pak-US relationship is important and the US would like to carry it forward. Despite Trump sown hiccups, these bilateral relations are still presenting a functional façade. Pakistan is confident that Taliban could be brought to the negotiating table after the success of recent short ceasefire on Eid. However, it feels that bringing Taliban to negotiating point is not the sole responsibility of Pakistan, but is a shared errand.
In a parallel development, during several rounds of discussions between Pakistani and Afghan officials, both sides have worked out a roadmap on how to invite Taliban to join the political process. Afghan President has confirmed that Pakistan and Afghanistan have made considerable progress on how to achieve peace in Afghanistan. This however does not match ground realities.
Against this backdrop, Wells’ recent visit to Kabul and Islamabad was significant. While in Kabul, she stated that American leadership desires decisive moves in the peace talks. Wells said there was widespread support for peace, underlined by scenes of unarmed fighters mingling with government troops and civilians on the streets of Afghan cities during Eid festival. Wells said that Taliban’s failure to engage in talks to end Afghanistan’s nearly 17-year old conflict was ‘unacceptable’: “I think it creates this impulse for everyone to renew their efforts to find a negotiated political solution. “Increasingly I think it’s becoming simply unacceptable for the Taliban not to negotiate”— a wishful assumption. Taliban soon responded by multiple attacks killing scores of people in Jalalabad and elsewhere.
Wells also called on Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Views were exchanged on issues of mutual interest, regional security and cooperation between both the countries, the Inter-Services Public Relations said in a statement. She “commended the sacrifices and resilience of the people and armed forces of Pakistan and appreciated the role Pakistan Army has played in battling the scourge of terrorism”. Both agreed on continued engagement at multiple levels. Trump has suspended military and civil sector aid to Pakistan since the beginning of this year alongside holding back the already paid for military hardware. America is also defaulting on arears of Coalition Support Fund, amount that America owes to Pakistan that latter has already spent on account of logistical services provided to the US.
Finance Minister, Dr Shamshad Akhtar also held a meeting with Wells. They discussed the current state of Pak-US relations with particular focus on economic cooperation. Finance Minister said that such bilateral visits enhance understanding of each other’s point of view on important issues. The Minister also briefed Alice Wells about Pakistan’s participation in the recently concluded FATF meeting. America had gone out of the way to have Pakistan placed on FATF grey list to the extent of circumventing the FTAF operating procedures.
Wells said that since the Afghan government and United States were willing to start talking without preconditions, the onus was now on the Taliban to respond— once again logic stands on its head. “Right now it’s the Taliban leaders… who aren’t residing in Afghanistan, who are the obstacle to a negotiated political settlement,” Wells said. She forgot to account for those Taliban controlling over 70 percent of Afghan territories. Previous meaningful peace initiatives were deliberately scuttled by the US, one has to see how the current one proceeds! Only the forward movement of peace process will reflect on America’s sincerity of purpose, which is hard to discern—at least for now.