I got my first opportunity to visit Kabul before 2018 ended for a conference where people from the regions that Afghanistan straddles – Central and South Asia – gathered to discuss ideas to promote women’s economic inclusion. My arrival coincided with those of the foreign ministers of China and Pakistan, who were visiting Kabul to strengthen the Beijing-Islamabad-Kabul trilateral.
The level of security in Kabul, though necessary, has become eerily normal for the entire country. For an unimportant foreigner like me, being taken around in a bullet-proof car with armed guards was an experience. Far from providing any sense of security, it was rather disconcerting.
To not be allowed even to roll down the car window to see the places around you says much about the general level of insecurity that prevails in the country. I was among the privileged, provided the luxury of being shielded from attacks. For ordinary women and men on the streets, it is a daily existential crisis.
Given these circumstances, as I evaluate the hurry with which negotiations are being conducted for Afghanistan, I feel concern for the people of this country, some of whom treated me to their famed mehmaan-nawaazi (care of guests).
The USA, which promised to help Afghanistan reconstruct, has not achieved much in terms of providing the country with a semblance of stability, peace, and security. Additionally, an unpredictable presidency in Washington has spelled more trouble and uncertainty for Afghanistan. The officially unannounced decision to withdraw half the American troops present in Afghanistan has resulted in global panic. Except for Pakistan, the potential downsizing of US troops from 14,000 to 7,000 has not garnered praise.
Even within the USA, the rift between President Donald Trump and his cabinet is becoming deeper. Former Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, in his resignation letter, told the President to find someone more suited to his style. He resigned because he disapproved of Trump’s decision to pull US troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
For the Pentagon, which has not received any intimation from the White House, the speculated withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in the "coming months" has been described as boding ill for America’s global influence. In a strategy paper, the Department of Defence stated that it wants to continue to “apply direct and indirect military pressure on the Taliban while supporting nascent efforts for peace in war-ravaged Afghanistan”.
Coming at a time when the Afghanistan government appears weak, speculation about the American troop drawdown will adversely affect the country’s morale. Almost 44 per cent of Afghan territory has been lost to the Taliban. Economic, political and social indicators also do not speak convincingly about the health of Afghanistan as a state. The Taliban is not in the mood to give up soon and, instead, its intention to take over the peace process is becoming increasingly evident.
The Taliban’s latest offensive came on December 24, targeting a government compound killing more than 45 people and injuring 10. That it attacked a compound housing the National Authority for People with Disabilities and Martyrs’ Families says much about the hypocrisy of the group. Supposedly waging a "holy war" for the Afghan people, its attack on facilities meant for those afflicted during the decades-long struggle speaks volumes about its double-standards on issues like martyrdom.
What it also hints at is that the Taliban is no longer interested in negotiating from a position of strength alone. It wants to make the peace process about itself rather than about peace in Afghanistan. In these circumstances, it would not be surprising if the “red lines,” like adherence to the Afghan Constitution, women’s rights, and so on are either watered down or removed.
The government of Afghanistan led by President Ashraf Ghani has responded to such speculations in a nationalist fashion. In what appears to be a calculated move, Ghani has selected two staunchly anti-Taliban and pro-war faces to run his defence and interior ministries - Asadullah Khalid and Amrullah Saleh, respectively. While they await official clearance from Parliament, Saleh is already speaking the language of "revenge".
The decision to get Khalid and Saleh on board is more than just posturing. The purpose is to send signals, both nationally and internationally. Internationally, the selection of these former intelligence officers looks like Afghanistan’s attempt at reclaiming its space in the recent American-led negotiations that have clearly neglected the Afghan government. Nationally, it looks like the continuation of a political trend in which major reshuffles are seen in the cabinet just before the presidential elections.
Ghani’s choices looks more like an attempt at co-opting those who were vocal against him. According to a source, the induction of Saleh and Khalid at this stage seems to be a part of some deal between Ghani and former Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar, a political rival, to accommodate each other’s interests. The current domestic negotiations are reminiscent of the backdoor dealings that happened between former President Hamid Karzai and Ghani to keep the former in power for two full terms. History is repeating itself.
Neglected by the US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad-led peace negotiations all this while, murmurs of a possible troop withdrawal have disconcerted India. It appears as though the country has again lost the game while the importance of Pakistan is increasing, despite America’s strictness.
Thus, while the forthcoming participation by Khalilzad in the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi (January 8-10) might soothe some nerves, it would be wise to not to raise hopes from it. It is possibly in the light of this realisation that India has intensified discussions with other stakeholders, including China and Russia, to reiterate their collective stance in ensuring that the peace process in Afghanistan is both Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.
China, on the other hand, is taking concrete measures to strengthen the Beijing-Islamabad-Kabul trilateral by bridging the trust gap between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Much like Saudi Arabia, which is acting as a guarantor of sorts in talks between the USA and the Taliban, China too has assumed a mediatory role between these two neighbouring countries in South Asia. Not only has it concluded multiple security agreements with both Afghanistan and Pakistan but has also supported the former’s bid for reconciliation at forums like the UN.
Afghanistan’s meandering path to peace has again taken a new turn. The destination, which is peace, is still nowhere in sight. The end to violence in Afghanistan through ceasefires can be effective only when the lateral forms of trouble are addressed, through intra-Afghan consensus. I agree with Ghani when he says that enduring peace cannot be achieved in a hurry.
For it to be sustainable, the peace which is attained has to be inclusive. But how much longer will it still take for this war-ravaged country to see the dawn of the day? Geopolitical will and statesmanship hold the answer to this.
(The author is a President Graduate Scholar and a PhD candidate at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. She can be reached at email@example.com)