Last week, this is what I wrote regarding the evolving situation in Afghanistan: “In theory, the only way to head off the impending implosion is for regional state actors — Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, Turkey and the CARs — to bring joint pressure to bear on both the Kabul government and Taliban; to get Ghani to agree to an interim set-up and to force Taliban to reduce violence. The window for doing this is fast closing, though.”
Let’s explore this idea some more.
Peace talks between Afghan government representatives and Taliban are almost dead in the water. In January this year, after months of gridlock, the two sides agreed on the rules and procedures for the negotiations. Since then nothing has moved because there is a fundamental disagreement: the Ghani government wants a comprehensive, permanent cease-fire before other matters can be discussed; Taliban want agreement on a power-sharing formula before discussing a reduction in violence and ultimately a ceasefire.
There is no indication that these conflicting priorities can be managed. Neither side trusts the other. Result: violence has steadily increased on the ground. The Taliban have the upper hand, legitimated by their deal with the United States and having secured an unconditional US/NATO withdrawal. They know that violence strengthens their hand. The Kabul government — especially President Ashraf Ghani and his ruling coterie — has two options: either to fold before the Taliban and get out or resist. For now they are choosing resistance.
It’s a cycle: distrust and animosity leading to more violence and soaring violence shrinking further the space for any meaningful talks or breakthrough.
Regional states, as well as the US, are still trying to make the Istanbul Conference happen. However, that meeting is unlikely to materialise even though the Taliban have not rejected the Istanbul process yet. Assadullah Saadati, the deputy head of Afghan High Council of National Reconciliation, was quoted as saying that “The argument is that in principle they do not see any problem with the Istanbul conference; however, they [have] suggested a preliminary meeting to make the conference result-oriented.” A Taliban statement last month called on the UN and the US to remove the names of Taliban leaders from the blacklist if they want the peace process to reach a conclusion. Taliban also want other processes to complement and not overshadow the Doha talks.
Najibullah’s resignation came before the UN Plan could be put in place; in fact, the coup that ousted Najibullah not only preceded the Plan, it put paid to the UN Plan
Pakistan is doing its bit by pressuring the Taliban to agree to participate in the Istanbul Conference. A Taliban delegation, led by Abdul Hakim Haqqani, was in Pakistan last month. Sources indicate that the main agenda was Taliban participation in the Istanbul Conference and fast-tracking an intra-Afghan agreement before the US/NATO withdrawal is completed.
These efforts (as noted earlier) are unlikely to yield results unless Ghani realises and accepts that Afghanistan needs a provisional interim set-up to work out the details of the intra-Afghan peace. That idea has been around for some time and was also pushed by the US. It also found mention in US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s letter to Ghani. Further, as I noted last week, this is not just a Taliban demand. Ghani’s political opposition has supported this idea, as well as people within the government negotiating team. Last January, Hafiz Mansur, a member of the government negotiating team, was quoted as saying: “An interim government is an undeniable topic of discussion, because we want a cease-fire and the Taliban aren’t ready to agree to one with the current government.”
Similar sentiments were voiced by Amin Ahmadi, another government negotiator, and Atta Mohammad Nur, former governor of Balkh and a central leader of Jamiat-e-Islami. These calls came during the January 2021 visit to Kabul by US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. Reports suggested that Khalilzad was trying to gauge support for the possibility of an interim government. Significantly, Ghani did not meet with Khalilzad.
The time has come for this idea to be placed firmly and centrally on the table. There is no other way to advance intra-Afghan peace talks. The only coterie opposed to this idea is Ghani and his close associates like First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, NSA Hamdullah Mohib and Hanif Atmar. All of them, Atmar to a lesser extent, are deeply opposed to talks with the Taliban. They had earlier been dragging their feet, thinking that the Biden Administration would reverse the Trump policy of a deal and troop withdrawal. While it’s now clear that Biden is extricating from the Afghanistan mess, Ghani et al are still not reconciled to the idea of engaging Taliban seriously.
Critics like Torek Farhadi, a former government advisor, say Ghani has become a ‘polarising’ figure. Talking to Frud Bezhan, a journalist who covers Afghanistan, Farhadi said: “Because of the emergency situation we are in, Afghanistan can’t afford for President Ghani to complete his term while dozens of Afghans are killed every day. It is not sustainable and over time it risks the collapse of the state after the exit of the foreign forces.”
Others oppose the idea of an interim government with reference to the resignation of Dr Najibullah, Afghanistan’s last communist leader, and the UN plan at the time to create an interim government. The sequencing, however, is deliberately obfuscated. It was not the UN plan that led to Najibullah’s resignation. As Mark Fineman reported in April 1992 for Los Angeles Times, “Afghanistan’s strongman Najibullah was forced to resign Thursday after four of his regime’s top generals apparently joined hands with the country’s most powerful rebel commander in a move that drove the ravaged nation closer to chaos.”
Najibullah’s resignation thus came before the UN Plan could be put in place; in fact, the coup that ousted Najibullah not only preceded the Plan, it put paid to the UN Plan. Fineman wrote: “[The] ouster of Najibullah, apparently the result of a slow-rolling coup that evolved over months of secret planning by dissidents within the army and the ruling party and by guerrilla leader [Ahmed Shah] Masood, appeared to have all but sabotaged an ambitious UN peace plan that was close to fruition.”
If anything, the reference to Najibullah’s resignation in April ’92 helps make the obvious argument for an interim set-up before either the Taliban make major gains on the ground or Ghani is ousted in a “slow-rolling coup.” Either of those developments would lead to the chaos that I talked about in last week’s piece. Things would then spiral out of control and no one, whether singly or in tandem, will be able to control the situation.
The Taliban have their own plan too. They are not only working towards gaining more territory, but have opened channels with Ghani’s political opposition. That plan seems geared towards isolating Ghani and his close associates. The US and the concerned regional states should take ownership of this strategy in order to control and guide it. If the Taliban manage it themselves, they will be in a position of superior strategic orientation in relation to other stakeholders in Kabul. Also, the strategy could go awry and lead to civil war. At this point, it is better for state actors to help this plan unfold and allow the fundamentals of a deal to be worked out.
Ghani can either accept the provisional interim government or be cut loose. In the first instance he could act like a statesman and even helm the process of reconciliation; in the second, he would be a liability.
The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He tweets @ejazhaider