Nobody expects an easy peace in Afghanistan
Whether or not the US-Taleban peace deal really brings an end to the Afghan war remains to be seen, but it does confirm one old eastern adage. Wars, they say in the foothills of the Himalayas, begin to end not when one party brings bigger and more sophisticated weapons to the battlefield, but when principals sit down and talk.
That is why the significance of the moment when US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taleban Chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar signed on the dotted line and shook hands cannot possibly be underscored. Yet, ironically, it also raised more questions than it answered. That, it turn, is why it hit a snag the very next day.
One of the central pillars of the agreement is, as is often the case in such situations, prisoner exchange; the other is an allied (predominantly US) drawdown and eventual exit in 14 months. It's been decided that, by March 10, the Taleban would release 1,000 Afghan security personnel they hold prisoner in exchange for 5,000 of their own fighters captured by the Afghan government.
But there's just one problem. The Americans and the Taleban decided all this by themselves, without feeling the need to take Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's administration on board. Little surprise, then, that Ghani lashed out the moment he got a little bit of the spotlight. The prisoner release promise was never for the Americans to make, he said. Turns out the Taleban not recognising the legitimate government in Kabul was more than a minor irritant after all.
But Ghani's likely to fall in place sooner than later; perhaps even before this piece goes to press. And that is when the real work will begin. Everything hinges on how well the Taleban and the Afghan government get along; and the prisoner swap was meant as a confidence building measure ahead of formal talks in Oslo, Norway, in mid-March. So already there's cautious optimism, at best, going forward.
Whenever the talks take place, the biggest differences will no doubt emerge on the nature of the constitution and the composition of the power sharing government of the future; especially just what positions the Taleban will get in the new hierarchy. So far, the Taleban continue to reject the constitution and the government as American puppets. And since it's the insurgents who gain on the ground, year after year, that made this ceasefire and subsequent talks possible, it's clear that the Taleban would want more of their demands accepted than whatever Ghani and his cabinet have in mind.
That is precisely why women, minorities and liberals, all of whom the Taleban persecuted relentlessly when they ran Afghanistan in the 1990s, are very sceptical about the kind of peace that is in the offing. With the Americans gone, and the Taleban as the more potent military force on the ground, what's to stop them from pushing for their demands when the time comes?
Sure, the Americans have said they'll be back in an instant should the Taleban go back on any of their commitments, but everybody knows all that is easier said than done. Clearly the Americans have been desperate to get out for a while. Already this war has cost them around a trillion dollars (some say upwards of two trillion) and almost 2,500 dead soldiers. Plus, with the US election season picking up pace, nobody's going to have time for Afghanistan; except perhaps President Donald Trump boasting 'I told you I'd get us out of there'.
The bit about the Taleban enforcing some sort of ban on Al Qaeda like militias is also dodgy.
The presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan cannot, unfortunately, be turned on and off like a switch. And nobody knows that better than the Americans. In fact, even as the Taleban were talking to the Americans, they were battling Daesh forces in a number of provinces. What if, for the sake of argument, a situation arises when there's a prolonged stalemate and they feel they might negotiate an end to that fight as well?
In short, nobody expects this to be an easy peace, especially if you ask Afghans. Yet there was nothing more important at this point than to get these talks somewhere. Wars, like all disputes, run in cycles. And the initial chest thumping, sabre rattling and later dig-your-heels-and-fight has now given way to war fatigue and necessity for dialogue.
For the government, the biggest takeaway from these developments is that the fighting would finally end and people will stop dying. And the Taleban, for all their gains, could never have retaken Kabul. Now they will once again be part of the government.
Best if the talks start from these points of convergence. And, one way or the other, they'll need more than the Americans watching over them just to make sure nobody breaks their word.
Nobody expects an easy peace in Afghanistan