Whither Afghan peace? Taliban throws the gauntlet to Washington

Walking out from the US-proposed intra-Afghan talks in Turkey, Taliban has cocked a snook at Capitol Hill indicating it will commence attacking foreign troops next month, writes Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (Retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Just as April 16 was approaching for the intra-Afghan peace talks in Turkey as proposed by the Joe Biden administration, the Taliban have pulled out on grounds that their internal consultations on the issue have not been completed.

Washington had suggested senior-level meeting between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Turkey as part of its four proposals to stabilise Afghanistan, the other three proposals being:  ministerial-level talks among Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the US to discuss a unified approach; implementing a 90-day reduction in violence intended to prevent a spring offensive by Taliban; and President Ghani to consider US proposals for a roadmap toward a new Afghan government.

Deborah Lyons, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recently said, “The forthcoming talks in Istanbul present an opportunity to solidify the principles upon which the process will be based, and potentially lay the foundation for a just and inclusive settlement that would complement the ongoing negotiations in Doha. These initiatives must, however, be focused and coherent. Above all they must reinforce, rather than undermine the Afghanistan peace negotiations underway now in Doha."

She also told the UNSC that after meeting with the parties in Doha, real substantive progress had been reported on key issues from the Taliban and Afghan government amid the ongoing talks.

Turkey was appointing a special representative for the intra-Afghan talks. Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said, "This is not a meeting that is an alternative to the Qatar process, it is a complement to that."

Turkey also said the talks would be goal-oriented. The radical axis with Turkey has led to Pakistan airing the view that Turkey is a powerful player in the region and the only country in the world that can ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan since it has cordial relationship with major local stakeholders in Afghanistan, including the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, and that Turkey can single-handedly achieve desired peace in war-torn Afghanistan.

Pakistan's prompting

Obviously, Pakistan had prompted the Biden administration to propose Turkey, its radical buddy, as the venue for the talks even as China-backed Pakistan supporting the Taliban and Haqqanis is the primary cause behind the violence in Afghanistan.

President Ghani was all set to propose a three-phase peace roadmap for Afghanistan during the forthcoming talks in Turkey: a ceasefire agreement in Phase 1; presidential election in Phase 2, and evolving a new constitutional framework in Phase 3.

The US has been pushing for an interim government in Afghanistan without elections, while President Ghani has always maintained that the Taliban is welcome to contest elections anytime. America’s proposal for an interim government in Afghanistan was to enable early US troop exit from the South Asian nation.

The Biden administration finds itself in a bind with the hasty US-Taliban deal inked by the Donald Trump administration that has increased violence levels in Afghanistan exponentially.

According to UNAMA, 3,035 civilians were killed and 5,785 injured in attacks in 2020, with significant rise in assassinations since direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban began in September 2020. The targeted killings of journalists, civil society members and health workers may amount to war crimes.

The lame excuse by the Taliban for pulling out of the talks in Turkey is a challenge to the US since the deadline for US troops to complete pullout was May 1, 2021, under the US-Taliban deal.

Taliban threat 

The Taliban has already warned of consequences in case the US does not adhere to the deadline. The Taliban apparently is also not enamored by the US proposal of an interim government, as also other proposals like 90-day reduction in violence (euphemism for a ceasefire) since its influence and control of Afghanistan are on the ascent.

In November 2020, Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General, NATO, had warned of a very high price if the US troop pullout was executed as per Trump’s plan.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who otherwise was a strong supporter of Trump) had called the plan of US troop pullout “a mistake”.

When the intra-Afghan dialogue will be rescheduled in Turkey, if at all, is not known, but Washington’s proposal for a 90-day reduction in violence will remain a chimera. On the contrary, it can be assumed with some measure of certainty that there will be an uptick in violence May 1 onwards when the Taliban commence attacking American troops as part of its Spring Offensive.

(The writer is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal. He can be contacted at prakashkatoch7@gmail.com)

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