In another erratic assessment, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai has welcomed reconciliation between Afghan government and Gulbudin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami. He also appreciated inclination by Mullah Rasool’s faction of Taliban to engage with Kabul. “I support all steps towards peace and reconciliation. Peace is the only way for survival”, he said. Ashraf Ghani and Karzai may be betting the wrong hors for real power to unleash or hold back field operations in Afghanistan rests elsewhere. Karzai also blamed Pakistan’s Afghan policy: “The Pakistani establishment should focus on strengthening friendly relations with the Afghans instead of using pressure tactics.” There are no sign of reduction in the complexities of Afghan chaos.
Pakistan maintains that India uses Afghan soil against Pakistan. Kabul’s India leaning is no secret. Asked about the ‘third country’ undermining Kabul-Islamabad relations, Karzai said: “It shows our weaknesses.” He acknowledged that ‘third force’ has been involved in Afghanistan since long but Kabul never ‘allowed it to materialise its dreams’. He said, “Pakistan has the right to ensure the territory of its neighbours is not used against it.”
While mainstream Afghan Taliban have rejected immediate direct talks with the Afghan government, the breakaway Taliban faction led by Mullah Muhammad Rasool has expressed the willingness to hold talks with the Afghan government. The Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, has branded Rasool’s faction “a government army in the shape of the Taliban.” He claimed that Rasool was supported by Kabul and Washington.
Whenever prospects of peace talks become visible, some incident happens to sabotage the process. The Murree dialogue was ruined by the sudden disclosure of the death of Mullah Omar and now when there were some hopes of resumption of the dialogue process, the drone attack was carried out to kill the top leader of Afghan Taliban. Undoubtedly, the killing of Mansour has complicated the Afghan peace process and put Pakistan into a more difficult situation as it was working actively and vigorously under the umbrella of Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) to bring the Taliban on negotiations table.
Droning of Mansour: Error of judgement
Killing of Taliban leader Akhter Mansour was a gross error of judgement on America’s part. He had managed the Taliban very well as proxy of Mullah Omar for nearly two years after Omar’s death, and had succeeded in making them part of negotiations, till abortive second round of Murree peace process. Outbreak of Mullah Omar’s death triggered a war of attrition amongst various factions of Taliban; Mullah Akhtar Mansour emerged most powerful as all prominent figures of Taliban leadership aligned behind him, including the Haqqanis and immediate family members of Mullah Omar. Pakistan’s assessment has it that Mansour was not opposed to peace talks. His boys from Doha had all along been visiting relevant capitals for spade work in run-up to re-railing of negotiations.
Akhtar Mansour had emerged as a credible dialogue partner who could enter into an agreement and had the power as well as clout to implement it as well. By all means, negotiations were expected to be tough and Mansour was expected to continue with tactical attacks to augment his bargaining position. His successor(s) would follow the suit unless enabling CBMs are floated by America-Afghan duo that a typical Taliban supremo could sell amongst the middle and lower echelons of Taliban leadership as well as to an overwhelming number of Taliban foot soldiers. US official had hoped that Mansour’s death would eliminate an obstacle to peace negotiations. The opposite has happened. Obama has conceded that there are no hopes for revival of peace talks in the near future.
Afghan Taliban’s Response
Swift selection of a hard-line cleric as the new Taliban chief has surprised Americans as they must be expecting another round of bloody battles for succession and then bagging the support of breakaway factions. Peaceful transition of leadership indicates that organization has come of age. In all probability, key Taliban leaders would now go underground for security reasons and wait for the new administration in Washington. Tactical commanders are likely to continue their attacks in urban centres so that the entity stays relevant to the conflict resolution. At least for now, Obama is destined to leave the decision on how to end America’s longest war to his successor.
Post Mansour way forward
Pakistan and Afghanistan discussed on May 30 the fate of a fledging reconciliation process in the aftermath of Mansour’s death. Issue was taken up in a meeting between Afghan Ambassador in Islamabad Dr Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal and Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz. Aziz told the Afghan envoy that Pakistan still believed negotiations was the only viable option to bring lasting peace to Afghanistan. Aziz informed Zakhilwal that Pakistan was (still) ready to facilitate talks but for that both Kabul and other stakeholders, including the United States, had to give firm assurances that they would not take any unilateral action against the Taliban leadership.
For any peace deal to have acceptance amongst Taliban cadres, it ought to radiate credible impression that it has been clenched by Taliban leadership from a position of strength. Even though back home Americans could keep projecting a victory. And the sitting Afghan government has to be humble and at the giving end. And any deal to be acceptable to Pakistan must ensure that it caters for effective cut offs with regards to Indian interference into Pakistan through Afghanistan. If Obama-Ghani-Modi axis is willing for this, a political settlement in Afghanistan could come by in weeks.
And if peace process is a cover for sustaining chaos in Afghanistan and facilitating Indian sponsorship of terrorist activities in Pakistan’s urban centres then good luck to America and its proxy rulers of Afghanistan. If so, then it may be time for Pakistan to make a bold course correction—starting with repatriation of Afghan refugees and stringent border management. Pakistan has it platter full of other priority issues.
American intent and prospects of Afghan peace
At this point and time killing of Mansour raises a pointed questions about on which side of peace process various actors are? Does America want peace in Afghanistan or wants to keep the pot boiling to add back more troops to Afghan theatre? Was the option of killing Mansour discussed in the QCG meeting held immediately before the drone attack? Or, Is the QCG a dummy body to gain time and America is working on bilateral channel with Afghan government to impose its own version of peace settlement by co-opting dormant militant Afghan entities? Is India instrumental in derailing the Afghan peace process? Will the Afghan Sikh community begin asserting its minority rights in Afghanistan? As of now one could have only partial answers to these tricky questions; and the content could vary hugely from respondent to respondent. One thing appears certain about Afghanistan: pro-turmoil lobby is quite strong, and peace in Afghanistan is a far cry!