Reports of significant progress in the talks between the US and the Taliban last week in Doha have generated concern in America, Afghanistan, and India, while Pakistan takes credit for the reported breakthrough. In Washington, Kabul and Delhi, there is apprehension that President Donald Trump is abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban and the Pakistan Army. Pakistan, on the other hand, sees its dream of a pliable Afghanistan within reach. It may be premature to bet on how the post-American conditions might look like in Afghanistan. What is clear, though, is that an important phase in modern Afghan history is coming to an end.
According to the US special envoy for peace talks with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, the agreement is still a “draft” and the two sides have agreed only “in principle” on just two aspects of a potential settlement of the conflict. Any one familiar with peace processes knows how hard it is to negotiate the terms of peace in civil wars, especially those that have gone on for long. It is even harder to implement agreements that are signed by warring parties. The US promises to set a timeline for the withdrawal of its troops over a period of 18 months after an accord is signed. The Taliban, in return, has apparently promised to dissociate itself from al Qaeda and the Islamic State and prevent any terror attacks against the US from Afghan soil. According to Khalilzad, many other issues have to be sorted out before the draft agreement becomes final. These issues include a ceasefire, negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban on a formula for power-sharing, changes to the constitution, the rights of women as well as ethnic and religious minorities, the mechanics of a peaceful transition and the interests of Afghanistan’s neighbours.
Every one of these issues is hard to grapple with. Finding common ground on how to sequence and coordinate different steps by the warring parties is even harder. The very attempt at ending war and building peace generates divisions and realignments within and across the main contenders. The prolonged Afghan conflict has arrived at one of those moments of structural change. Whether peace can be negotiated or not, status quo in Afghanistan appears increasingly unsustainable. Even if Pakistan and the Taliban prevail in the wake of American withdrawal, their victory will be short-lived. For there is no evidence of their intent or capability to build a broad-based political coalition in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s narrow national goals and Taliban’s sectarianism will begin another awful chapter in the unending Afghan tragedy.