US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad gestures as he speaks during a forum talk with Tolo news director Lotfullah Najafizada in Kabul on April 28. Photo: Wakil Kohsar / AFP

The ongoing peace process in Afghanistan seems to have evolved from the growing American realization that the Afghan conflict does not have a military solution, having already claimed high civilian and military casualties and significant resources without accruing to socio-economic development of Afghanistan.

It has been estimated that since 2009, nearly 20,000 Afghan civilians have been killed in the conflict and another 50,000 wounded (the United Nations started documenting the casualties of the war in 2009). The US has spent more than $877 billion on the war and has lost at least 2,000 military personnel in the country since the war began in 2001. Since 2014, Afghanistan has lost some 45,000 soldiers in the conflict.

The peace process in Afghanistan took off last year with senior American officials traveling to Doha to open talks with the Taliban. This breakthrough was geared up with the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as the US State Department’s special representative for Afghan reconciliation. However, each round of talks, though starting out with some  optimism, fizzled out, followed by enhanced insurgency and violence.

So far, five rounds of talks have been held. The most recent round faced temporary suspension with the Taliban’s refusal to talk directly to representatives of  the Afghan government, which the group has long viewed as an American puppet. The Afghan-to-Afghan talks scheduled to take place in Qatar (where the Taliban maintain their office) and intended to include the Taliban, Kabul government representatives, the opposition, and other prominent figures collapsed as the two sides were unable to agree on the participants.

Meanwhile, the US government has drummed up support for the peace process, citing success stories. The State Department has referred to Russia and China joining with the US calling for intra-Afghan talks that urged a ceasefire as well as supported “an orderly and responsible withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan as part of the overall peace process.”

While Khalilzad is seeking guarantees that the Taliban will not provide safe haven to terrorist groups and will work toward ensuring that Afghan territory is not used to launch strikes against the US by transnational groups such as al-Qaeda, the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and ISIS in future, the Taliban have been insistent on a date for US withdrawal along with the release of all Taliban detainees in Guantánamo and Afghanistan.

According to news reports, though the American and Taliban negotiators have reached an agreement on the framework of a deal, widespread combat and insurgent attacks against civilians continue. Amid the positive signs of the peace momentum characterized by high-level visits and frequent occurrences of talks, there is a murky side to the peace process as well.

While regional powers have been stressing an “Afghan-owned” and “Afghan-led” peace process, respective geopolitical interests of those powers ordain different roles for themselves. It is noteworthy that Russia hosted peace talks separate from the American format and China, Pakistan, Iran and Russia conducted a number of meetings and expressed concerns that did not conform to the US peace moves.

Not all the major powers, such as Russia and China, have recognized Islamabad’s role in providing terror sanctuaries and put pressure on it, while the US (supported by Afghanistan and India) has been categorical in suggesting that Pakistan has been causing cross-border instability. However, the question remains whether Pakistan will accept a sovereign and independent Afghanistan and sacrifice its perceived interests emanating from Afghan instability.

Meanwhile, the US desperation to keep the Taliban on board has at times led the National Unity Government of Afghanistan to feel abandoned, and the US sought an apology when the Afghan national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, did not mince words to accuse Khalilzad of betraying the Afghan government.

Indicating the continuing stalemate, the US military command in Afghanistan has reportedly stopped regular territorial assessments (quantifying how many people and districts the government and insurgents control respectively). and this has long been an important public measure of progress in the war. A US military assessment report released in January for the three-month quarter ending in October showed that the Afghan government’s control over territory had contracted by 1.7% compared with the previous quarter.

Continued military and strategic support lent by the US has not enabled the Afghan government to support its claim as a significant stakeholder in the peace process. Any peace deal between the US and the Taliban will be unable to address the problems of widespread insecurity, endemic corruption, violation of women’s rights and rampant drug trafficking. Even while the US has spent a whopping $9 billion since 2002 to combat opium production and trafficking to dent the fundraising ability of the Taliban, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime projects Afghanistan as the world leader in poppy cultivation, which reached its peak in 2017.

It is believed that the peace process has tilted in favor of the Taliban largely on account of decreasing popular support for the prolonged American stay and squandering of resources. Many American scholars have maintained that the US engagement in Afghanistan has gone awry because there has been no consensus on what victory in the war-ravaged country would look like or whether it is even possible. The American College of National Security Leaders – a group of retired flag officers, ambassadors, and senior government executives – reportedly called for ending the war in Afghanistan as “it has gone on too long, soaked up too many resources, and become a perpetual distraction.”

Some scholars argue that Khalilzad is not negotiating peace in Afghanistan but rather a managed US exit. The resilience of the insurgent group also prompted the Afghan government earlier to offer a share of power, inviting the Taliban to form a political party and participate in elections. The group declined the offers and now the apparent US readiness to quit the country without making serious attempts at turning the endeavor into a truly Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process could hamper long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan.

The democratic process in Afghanistan has been stymied as the presidential election that had been scheduled for April has been postponed twice, to July and now to September 28. It has been argued that the Taliban are not a monolithic structure but comprise pragmatists as well as hardliners. While the former would be open to the possibility of a political agreement, the latter would remain dedicated to the military struggle. However, none would be prepared to yield on the Taliban’s core Islamic principles.

The Asia Foundation’s annual Afghanistan survey and a nationwide survey conducted by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies found in 2018 that more than 90% of the Afghan population does not support the Taliban’s cause. The sticking point remains whether the Taliban’s goal of establishing a “pure Islamic government” is compatible with the principles of pluralism, power-sharing and election-based politics. The peace process will be strengthened only if it corroborates the small achievements already made in the areas of state-building, democratization and pluralism.

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