Fresh Afghan peace effort
Two surprises, one after the other, have raised hopes for a peace breakthrough in Afghanistan in the past few days, although sceptics point to many a slip between the cup and the lip as yet. First Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced an Eid ceasefire, followed two days later by a similar surprise announcement by the Taliban. For the latter, this was the first such temporary halt in hostilities since 2001 when their regime was ousted by the US invasion and occupation of the country. Since then, the war has shown no signs of abating or ending, despite many efforts over these 17 years to bring to a close the longest overseas war the US has waged. However, it may be too early to start celebrating a turn towards peace in the war-torn land that has been continuously at war for almost four decades. One can understand and sympathise with the sentiments of relief expressed by Afghan people regarding the ceasefire breathing space provided over Eid. However, the hope that this may be the starting point of a peace process still has many question marks looming over it. For one, the exceptions to the ceasefire on both sides are not without significance. The US, NATO and Afghan forces stated that Islamic State (IS) was excluded from the ceasefire and in fact their forces would take advantage of the space provided by the ceasefire with the Taliban to intensify operations against the growing threat from IS in eastern Afghanistan. Also, they made it clear that they reserved the right to defend themselves against any attacks by the Taliban. On the other hand, the Taliban excluded foreign forces from the ceasefire and also asserted their right of defence. The precariousness of the ceasefire was reflected in two Taliban attacks hours before the ceasefire announcement that led to 36 soldiers and police being killed in Herat and Kunduz. Unless both sides exercise restraint, this may be a portent of possible breaches of the temporary peace interregnum. Whereas the Taliban have at least committed to a ceasefire, the same cannot be said for the deadly Haqqani Network, which in recent years has rendered Kabul a highly dangerous place because of its spectacular attacks in the capital.
The ceasefire announcements may well be the outcome of recent moves by Washington vis-à-vis its strained relationship with Pakistan. Since his election, US President Donald Trump has opted for a more muscular approach towards Pakistan, accusing its ‘ally’ of deceit, cutting off security aid and tightening the screws on Islamabad in a number of ways, financial and other. Now, however, it appears that the US is at the same time trying to get Pakistan on board to bring about peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan by using its influence with the Afghan Taliban to persuade and encourage them to engage in negotiations. The Taliban’s long standing position has been that they will not negotiate with the Afghan government, which they call a puppet of Washington, but only with the US. The US’s response has been and remains that whereas they can and will participate in any peace negotiations, they cannot be a substitute for the government in Kabul. Implicitly, Pakistan’s formulation for peace in Afghanistan being preferably an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led process accords with Washington’s position. Analysts describe the temporary ceasefire as the result of telephone calls recently between US Vice President Mike Pence and caretaker Prime Minister Nasirul Mulk and between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the new perception emerging in Washington that Pakistan’s core concerns have to be part of any peace process. Those core concerns may well have changed from seeking to support the Taliban to ensure Pakistan’s security and other interests on its western border to nudging the Taliban to engage with the other side’s peace overtures to end the long running war that has virtually destroyed Afghanistan and its people’s lives and arguably destabilised Pakistan and the region. Peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan has emerged as the best guarantee of Pakistan’s entire gamut of interests, and it is this goal all stakeholders in the conflict must now point their compasses towards.