Echoes of peace, drumbeats of war | Pakistan Today

Echoes of peace, drumbeats of war

Candid Corner

  • One morphing into the other, leaving behind trails of devastation

“Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerising video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all.”

– Arthur C Clarke

It’s the tweet that did it again. The prospect of any imminent peace deal with the Taliban has been scrapped– at least, for the time being. The huddle at Camp David did not materialise as a consequence of either the intransigence displayed by one or the other potential participant, or as an accompaniment of the decision to abandon the agreement.

The war will continue, more bombs will pound Afghan soil, and with greater intensity. The Taliban shall ratchet up the ante as has been adequately reflected in the last few days. On his part, President Ashraf Ghani looks determined to hold the elections on September 28, provoking an even higher level of violence in the war-ravaged country.

The US decision to retain the option of a full or partial withdrawal from Afghanistan, with or without a deal, is an apt reminder of the Brexit imbroglio.

In the US, the expected deal, whose salient features had been filtered out from time to time, was generally perceived as an instrument of surrender before the Taliban. What, however, was untenable was the way the US conducted the negotiations– having rendered itself weak at the outset by announcing its plans of exiting the war in Afghanistan. That gave the Taliban the upper hand at the very inception of the talks and the US, thereafter, was left with salvaging an honourable exit. This turned out to be a rank bad strategy and the latest announcement of not going for the deal at this juncture could partly be an attempt to cover up the embarrassment of having struck a poor bargain.

The cynics may say that, well, nothing has changed. There was war, and there is war. People were dying then, people are dying now. But, in reality, a lot has changed in the last few days. The fleeting prospect of silencing of the guns that had appeared on the horizon has melted away before taking a definitive shape and, with it, have also dissipated the hopes and aspirations of the people who have not known anything but war in their midst, and who so desperately, and so passionately, seek peace to emerge from the ruins of fratricide which has typified Afghanistan over the last 40 years.

The options are limited, continued war not being one of them. In the end, everyone has to get to the negotiation table. So, what purpose would the interlude serve? Hitting the Taliban with unprecedented severity to soften them up? Has this worked in the past? If not, what chance does it stand to work in the future?

Incidentally, these hopes spanned a lot more than what even the purported peace deal could actually deliver. A large number of people thought that, as a maximalist option, it would bring peace. This, by all pragmatic appraisals, was likely to remain a pipedream. In the absence of convergence emerging among all Afghan stakeholders, the prospect of peace could not materialise. The envisaged deal was more like a facilitating platform for the US to withdraw, leaving the fate of the country mostly in the hands of a resurgent Taliban on the singular assurance that they would not allow the Afghan soil to be used for launching terrorist attacks against the US.

That hardly offers an even-stakes solution, as the Taliban and the US are not the only parties to the conflict. There are a number of other constituents to the emergence of a consensus for any deal to be effective for forging peace in the country. That has not been the case and, given the Taliban obstinacy, it is not likely to happen even after a deal may be signed. The inflexibility of their mindset is focussed solely on carving out a single eventuality: that of ruling Afghanistan with others as subordinates to their diktat rather than as partners in any dispensation.

The war in Afghanistan has now lasted over 18 years and the much-touted victory over the Taliban is nowhere in sight. It is not that such a victory could not be secured, but the sad reality is that it has not been. The reasons would be as numerous as the number of parties or people one talks to, but the making of an ill-conceived adventure born out of the need for gaining a physical foothold in the region for strategic gains would remain central to solving the riddle. The fact that it led to a deeper, bloodier, and mostly unrewarding entanglement constitutes the larger picture that must have escaped the minds of the planners of the operation. The lack of purpose and involvement during the initial days after launching the attack also contributed to the ultimate failure in terms of meeting the salient objectives so much so that the drumbeaters of war are now eager to call it quits.

This thing about getting out could also be a mere veneer for the US to maintain a foothold in a region that remains pivotal to advance its strategic interests, mostly countering the gains that China has made in the recent past. Much may have become clear, but a lot remains hazy. The indecision was evident even through the currency of the talks when one could hear murmurs of maintaining military bases in the region alongside proclamations of leaving.

The stalled talks also present a stiff challenge for Pakistan. A successful conclusion of the parleys would have led to the emergence of an Afghanistan with depleted prospect of Indian intrusion. Now that the talks have been derailed, the spectre of a role by India becomes a patent reality. So, it would be in Pakistan’s interest for the dialogue process to recommence as soon as possible. Prime Minister Imran Khan has already stated that Pakistan would work for an early resumption of the US-Taliban engagement.

During my recent trip to the US, I encountered various strands of thinking. One looked at the conclusion of the current deal as only the first phase in the negotiations process covering two items of the four-item agenda that Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had outlined earlier. These encompassed the commitment by the Taliban not to allow the use of Afghan soil for launching any terrorist activity and the undertaking by the US to withdraw troops from Afghanistan according to a mutually-agreed timeline. The second phase of the agreement was to handle the other two items including a successful convening of the intra-Afghan dialogue, and the enforcement of ceasefire.

The US is no longer in a position to scale down the Taliban ascendancy that it facilitated at the time of commencement of the talks. Any delay in restarting the engagement will only give them further relevance and legitimacy.

The options are limited, continued war not being one of them. In the end, everyone has to get to the negotiation table. So, what purpose would the interlude serve? Hitting the Taliban with unprecedented severity to soften them up? Has this worked in the past? If not, what chance does it stand to work in the future?

The prospect of dealing with a difficult adversary is a reality and time is not going to change that. Mistakes committed cannot be undone. These have to be faced and the best place to do that will be the negotiation table, not the battleground.

The writer is a political analyst and the Executive Director of the Regional Peace Institute. He can be reached at: [email protected]; Twitter: @RaoofHasan.