US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (center left) walks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's chief of staff Abdul Salam Rahimi, as Pompeo arrives at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on June 25, 2019. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin / AFP

Two weeks after US President Donald Trump called off a secret Afghan peace summit at the Camp David facility near Washington, DC, key observers agree that it was doomed to fail from the start. With general elections around the corner, eyes were on Pakistan and Trump’s latest threat to continue fighting the Taliban.

Saad Mohseni, chairman of the Moby Media Group, the largest in Afghanistan, believes that the US effort through Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad, Washington’s special envoy for Afghanistan, did not have much chance to make the peace talks a success.

“Ambassador Khalizad did not have much to work with other than to secure an agreement for the peaceful withdrawal of US troops. The idea was to gather enough momentum so that it [the peace process] becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.

Mohseni, an Afghan by birth, moved with his family to Australia as a child after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He returned after the fall of the Taliban and launched the Moby Group as part of the country’s reconstruction effort. He was speaking as a part of a panel discussion in New Delhi, looking at the options available for Afghanistan as a resurgent Taliban group prepares to disrupt elections.

Jockeying for space

Many observers agree that the now-canceled secret summit at Camp David could not be described as “peace talks.”

“The talks at Doha [were] a way to extricate the US out of Afghanistan. It was not a road to peace,” said Jayant Prasad, who was India’s ambassador to Afghanistan when the embassy in Kabul was subjected to a major attack by the Taliban. The US aim to seek safe passage out of Afghanistan through the talks with the Taliban, he said, were doomed to fail.

“This was tried in the Helmand province in 2006, as British forces were planning to take over. They tried to establish an agreement to ensure that British and Taliban troops would not kill each other, but in the end out of 13 districts in the province, 11 ended up with the Taliban.” In his view, something similar would have been the likely fallout had the talks between the US and the Taliban arrived at an agreement.

The war in Afghanistan that began after al-Qaeda attacked the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, has meant different things to different regions of South Asia.

India saw an opportunity in the war to push its traditional rival Pakistan out of the driver’s seat in Afghanistan and also to highlight Pakistan’s role in “sponsoring” terrorism in the region. For Pakistan, one of the few countries to recognize the Taliban government immediately after the fall of the mujahideen, it was setback. For decades, Pakistan looked at its western border with Afghanistan as an unnecessary drain on its resources that could have been used against India.

The invasion of Afghanistan by the erstwhile Soviet Union changed things in favor of Pakistan. As the US launched a covert war by aiding the mujahideen, Pakistan gained in terms of money and equipment. Now, any withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would be impossible, most observers agree, without the approval and support of the Pakistanis. This explains the unusually warm meeting between Trump and prime minister Imran Khan on July 23 in Washington. Trump hoped for Pakistan’s support in the “peace talks” with the Taliban and even offered to mediate on Kashmir with India.

The cancellation of the secret summit now puts India in a better position over Pakistan. For years, India depended on a few members of the Northern Alliance, the most notable being commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the enigmatic Tajik leader who also served as the defense minister in the mujahideen government. Known as the “Lion of the Panjshir Valley,” Massoud used to meet India’s envoys secretly in Dushanbe until he was killed a few days before the September 11 attacks. His son is now emerging as a possible leader of a new Afghan effort to keep the Taliban at bay.

But in Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani, who had hoped for better relations with Pakistan at the start of his tenure, is likely to be happy that the talks came to naught. The fact that he chose Amrullah Saleh, a former Afghan intelligence chief and a vocal critic of Pakistan, as his running mate in the upcoming elections is a fair indication of where Ghani stands today.

But as Mohseni points out, there are worries as the elections come closer. “We have 9 million registered voters, but only 3 million showed up [to vote in the 2018 Parliamentary elections]. There are many challenges and it will be a very close call [on] whether we can hold the elections.”

Hard options

For now, everyone agrees that the coming months will be crucial for Afghanistan and regional stability. Conducting the elections will be critical while the Afghan National Army and the US battle the Taliban.

“Since 2014, 50,000 Afghan soldiers have died fighting the Taliban,” Mohseni pointed out. The war is likely to continue because even at the height of the “peace talks” the Taliban never offered a ceasefire.

Former ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhya, who retired from the Indian Foreign Service recently, said: “The Afghan government was completely excluded from these talks and the US was not a trusted interlocutor.” Mukhopadhya was tasked with setting up the Indian Embassy in Kabul soon after the Taliban were defeated. He returned to Afghanistan in 2010 as India’s ambassador and headed the mission until 2013.

A senior Afghan government representative said: “The international community needs to fully support the coming general elections and also ensure that intra-Afghan talks start at the earliest. The current Afghan government representatives insist that there are certain red lines that cannot be negotiated with any entity, including the Taliban, if the peace talks are to proceed. This includes the constitution and equal rights for women, who had been stripped of their basic entitlements under the Taliban. These are basic to any agreement if the Taliban are to be integrated into the Afghan community again.”

With elections due in less than two weeks, the Taliban are expected to ramp up their attacks. The Afghans and their US allies are in for another round of a hard fighting before some degree of normalcy can return.

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