Peace dialogue with Taliban is essential | Pakistan Today

Peace dialogue with Taliban is essential

  • Pakistan has been in the forefront of peace overtures

Afghanistan has been in the grip of violence for nearly four decades. The past few weeks have been more bloody and gory. Ghazni was recently under Taliban occupation but after Taliban fighters were pushed out, according to the UN, it is still not safe for civilians or aid workers to get in or out of the city. More than 200 civilians were killed and hundreds more wounded during the five-day assault. People were trapped in their homes for five days as thousands of Taliban fighters and Afghan soldiers fought in the streets. US helicopters, drones, and a B-1 bomber patrolled overhead while the Red Cross recovered 250 bodies from the streets.

Despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s offer of a three months’ Eid ceasefire with the Taliban, rockets were fired towards the presidential palace in Kabul on Eid day, as the Afghan president delivered a message of peace for Muslim celebrations of Eid al-Adha. An official at the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan said nine attackers launched about 30 mortar rounds from two separate locations in Kabul. It was unclear who carried out the attack. Police initially blamed the Taliban, but Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) later issued a statement saying it fired mortars at the presidential palace. There was no immediate comment from the Taliban. The area where the rockets struck is one of the most secure in the Afghan capital, where embassies and government buildings are surrounded by high cement blast walls and coils of razor wire. It was another blow to Ghani’s efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table and hold peace talks to end the country’s 17-year war.

In this backdrop, where there has been an unprecedented increase in the attacks of Taliban as well as in the causalities of Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Kabul administration is being criticised by the citizens for failing to evolve an effective security policy. Afghan analyst Nazar Sarmachar commented that the proximity of the attack to the presidential palace highlighted glaring security shortcomings in the capital. “It could have killed or wounded the president,” he said. Gains of the Taliban have once again proved that the peace in Afghanistan cannot come without direct purposeful dialogue with the Taliban.

Whatever channel is used, direct, indirect, back channel or through third party mediators or arbitrators the time for peace talks is now. The Taliban have already established themselves to be a formidable foe, which controls half of Afghanistan

There is no dearth of efforts by well wishers of Afghanistan to bring peace to the war ravaged country. Pakistan has been in the forefront of these peace talk overtures. Its sincere endeavours have either been spurned or sabotaged. On the eve of the second round of Afghan government and Taliban peace talks hosted by Islamabad at Murree in July 2015, were scuttled after the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), its main spy agency, leaked information that the Taliban Chief Mullah Umar had died two years earlier while his death had been a well kept secret.

Pakistan managed to woo Mullah Umar’s successor Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour to participate in peace talks but on 21 May 2016, Mansour was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan while returning from Iran. Often Pakistan is blamed for harbouring or sponsoring the Afghan Taliban. US President Donald Trump in January 2018 suspended more than USD 1.15 billion security assistance to Pakistan, accusing it of harboring terror groups like the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network within its border and showing unwillingness to take “decisive actions” against them. Economic constraints like restrictions on IMF bailout package were recommended and now United States Congress has passed the National Defense Authorization Act-2019 (NDAA-19) which capped its security-related aid to Pakistan to $150 million, significantly below the historic level of more than $1 billion to $750 million per year.

If that was not enough, Donald Trump’s administration has quietly started cutting scores of Pakistani officers from coveted training and educational programmes that have been a hallmark of bilateral military relations for decades. The effective suspension of Pakistan from the US government’s International Military Education and Training program (IMET) will close off places that had been set aside for 66 Pakistani officers this year, a State Department spokesperson informed media.

Pakistan has not lost heart but has joined Russia and China to help mediate peace with the Taliban.

Russia’s foreign minister announced on 21 August 2018 that the Taliban had accepted an invitation to attend peace talks in Moscow next month. Sergey Lavrov said Russia invited the Taliban to the September 4 talks and received a positive response, voicing hope for “productive” negotiations. Lavrov reaffirmed Russia’s contacts with the Taliban aim to ensure the safety of Russian citizens in Afghanistan and encourage the Taliban to abandon hostilities and engage in a dialogue with the government.

Russia has invited 12 countries, including the United States, to the talks, but Washington has declined the invitation. Russia’s foreign ministry said on 22 August that it regretted the US decision.

Apparently, in a bid to follow its mentor, the USA, the foreign ministry of Afghanistan has also announced that Afghanistan will not attend the multinational peace talks hosted by Russia early next month, the Afghan foreign ministry has said, a decision that could make Moscow reconsider its plan to invite the Taliban.

Some Afghan officials opine that they want to negotiate directly with the Taliban. That is positive thinking but far removed from reality considering that the Taliban rejected Dr Ashraf Ghani’s three-month ceasefire and said they would press on with their war, two commanders of the group told Reuters news agency, after a series of attacks, including the prolonged assault on a key city of Ghazni, in which hundreds of people have been killed.

It may be common knowledge now that back-channel diplomacy between the Taliban and a range of countries — including the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — has taken place over the years to end the latest phase of Afghanistan’s decades of war, which began with a US invasion in 2001 but they have not yielded the desired peace.

Whatever channel is used, direct, indirect, back channel or through third party mediators or arbitrators the time for peace talks is now. The Taliban have already established themselves to be a formidable foe, which controls half of Afghanistan. They can no longer be defeated by brute force; the only path to peace is negotiations. Pakistan is a stakeholder in Afghan peace because its own future is linked with peace in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Pakistan army is sealing the porous Pak–Afghan border to stop armed incursions into its territory from the Afghan side. In addition to beefing up troops, about 13 percent of a fence already planned along 1456 miles long border has been completed. Such initiatives by Pakistan Army have reduced the terror related violence to its lowest in last two decades. Washington’s demands to do more sound ridiculous in the face of Pakistan’s contributions towards eliminating terrorism from the region.

Sultan M Hali

The author is a retired Group Captain and author of the book Defence & Diplomacy. Currently he is a columnist, analyst and TV talk show host.