A rare prospect for peace has come into sight in Afghanistan in the wake of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s bold offer to the Taliban. In a sweeping proposal, and for perhaps the first since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Ghani suggested a cease-fire, removal of sanctions, prisoner release, recognition of the Taliban as a political party, fresh elections and a constitutional review. Speaking at the Kabul Process, a two-day Western-backed peace conference, Ghani has demonstrated remarkable boldness and vision. Will the Taliban and Pakistan reciprocate for the sake of regional peace?
Many of the elements of Ghani’s offer are familiar, but taken together, they constitute unconditional and comprehensive confidence-building measures aimed at reconciliation with the insurgent group. The present offer stands out from many of its failed precursors in critical ways. The previous formulation was that the Taliban should choose between war and peace; the latest invitation is without preconditions, with no time limit for the Taliban to respond. Afghan government’s past insistence on the Taliban’s acceptance of the Afghan constitution was also a major roadblock; Ghani has now clearly hinted that the constitution, like all documents, is subject to amendment.
The current offer is a landmark because it expects that in order to be recognized as a legitimate political group, the Taliban would make vital contribution to building peace in the conflict-ridden country. By removing its pariah status, Ghani has taken a decisive step in the direction of making the Taliban part of the political mainstream. It remains to be seen whether the insurgent group is also convinced of the practicality of the peace talks, as it has responded to the olive branch in an indirect manner. In response to a recent suggestion by former Afghan provincial governor and mujahedeen leader Ismail Khan that the Taliban could negotiate with former mujahedeen groups if not interested in responding to Ghani’s peace offer, the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said: “We support all efforts that lead to ending the ongoing crisis in this country.” This overture keeps the hope of reconciliation dialogue alive. If the Taliban eventually accepts Ghani’s unprecedented proposal, the stage would eventually be set for much-awaited engagement between the Taliban and the Kabul government.
Ghani’s olive branch to the Taliban is not without reason. The immediate impetus seems to be the Taliban’s positive response to the groundbreaking of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, which is also supported by Washington. While welcoming the TAPI initiative, the Taliban vowed to support as well as protect the pipeline in areas under its control, since the project has great development potential for Afghanistan. The Taliban, which often stands accused of destroying bridges, roads and schools across the country, has rarely supported any project sponsored by the Kabul government. By warming up to the TAPI project, the Taliban is keen to dispel its anti-development image.
Ghani’s peace offer also seems to have been dictated by the Taliban’s open letter to the American public stating that conflict can be resolved only through peaceful dialogue. The timing of the Taliban’s overture was equally important, as it came immediately after the group claimed responsibility for a series of deadly terrorist attacks in Kabul. Though it may seem contradictory that Taliban’s proposal for peace negotiations came after terror attacks, staging terror attacks before the offer of talks was primarily aimed at raising the stakes in the peace process. It seems reasonable to argue that the Taliban wanted to show the powerlessness of the Afghan government while demonstrating its own growing strength. Who can dispute the fact that America’s financial and military support is critical for the survival of the Ghani administration?
The Taliban-led insurgency remains a lethal force, drawing sustenance from a variety of sources in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, always attempting to coalesce with anti-government elements and criminal networks. Although the Taliban has proven its ability to strike at even the most fortified locations in Kabul, it is fully aware that capturing Kabul is not possible as long as the Americans remain invested in ensuring the government’s security. After the Taliban-claimed attacks on Jan. 20 at Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel that killed over 100 people, Ghani and U.S. President Donald Trump vowed a strong response, ruling out peace talks. Therefore, the Taliban would not be entirely correct in interpreting Ghani’s peace offer as a sign of his administration’s weakness. The Taliban’s intractable insistence on bypassing the Kabul government and directly talking to Washington, and the understandable reluctance of the Trump administration to engage in direct dialogue with the Taliban, have been significant barriers to kick-starting the elusive peace process. The U.S. has adopted the right approach on the Taliban’s so-called peace offer by asking the insurgent group to talk to the Kabul government, since a successful dialogue can only be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
Simultaneously, Washington needs to build on the latest positive developments to revive the peace negotiations, either through the Quadrilateral mechanism—comprised of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and the U.S.—or through another format that also includes Russia, India and Iran. The inclusiveness of the peace process would greatly reduce the need for proxy interventions in Afghanistan, thereby building transparency and trust. Identification of areas where confidence-building measures can be developed must be the immediate priority of both sides. Perhaps a start could be an agreement not to attack major infrastructure: the Taliban’s attitude toward the TAPI project offers hope in this regard.
After Ghani’s golden offer it is Pakistan’s responsibility to use its leverage with the Taliban to get them on board. Pakistan must be firmly pressured by the U.S. to put its unstinting diplomatic and military weight behind Ghani’s momentous initiative, which needs to be capitalized upon by all the stakeholders. India has also backed Ghani. However, New Delhi does not want Islamabad to be brought back into the Afghan game without adequate safeguards, as Pakistan’s deep state has its own agenda for Afghanistan.
Amid Kabul’s attempts to co-opt elements within the Taliban insurgency through a grand peace bargain, it is crucial to intensify pressure on the anti-talk constituency, within the insurgency as well as in Pakistan’s security establishment, to negotiate for peace. As underlined by General John Nicholson, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, efforts to apply religious, diplomatic, military and social pressure on the Taliban must continue with greater vigor. Given their long history of violent distrust, it will not be easy for Islamabad and Kabul or the Taliban and Kabul to initiate the constructive engagement aimed at mutual cooperation that is required to eliminate terrorism from the region. However, the very history of violent distrust should be justification enough to force change in deeply entrenched positions and long-held perceptions. It is imperative that Ghani’s genuine longing for reconciliation be approached with greater sensitivity and long-term vision by the Taliban and its backers across the Durand Line. It takes two to tango.
Photo by: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images