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Securing Afghan Peace Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

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The Doha agreement between the US and Taliban was hailed by some as the peace agreement. Taliban celebrated it as a victory, some including the US, called it the first step in a peace-making process, while a few considered it as the initiation of a more violent conflict within Afghanistan. The post agreement progression of events and controversies is strengthening the perception (right or wrong) of Taliban victory or more violence.

The coronavirus pandemic has slowed or dampened all other concerns over the world. However in Afghanistan, it has not dented to any significant level – the conflicts and the challenges to peace. The Taliban massacred 35 Afghan soldiers just before the arrival of Mr. Pompeo who was neither able to resolve the Afghan presidential conflict nor make any progress towards initiation of the intra Afghan dialogue. The US – expressing displeasure over lack of progress in the initiation of Afghan Peace Process and the failure to resolve the Afghan Presidential controversy – announced cutting of $ 1 billion in aid to Afghanistan. Apparently under US pressure, Afghan Government announced the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and named its negotiating team, however, Taliban responded by declaring the team as non-inclusive, thus refused to talk  and occupied more territory. Though the process for exchange of prisoners has started, the reluctance to compromise is very visible.

One very important factor of the continued violent conflict is attempts by outsiders, including but not only, its neighbors to use their influence inside Afghanistan to control it to the exclusion of others and the others countering those attempts. The internal strife and divisions aided by external overt and covert interventions have broken down Afghan state and society to a level that it is not able to restore the internal balance, thus further facilitating external influences and intervention and a continued civil war.

The weakness in the US Afghan policy lies in its use of force or negotiations not taking note of the need for internal and external balance. Coming quickly to the present, that is Trump era, US policy has been even less educated by the geopolitics of Afghanistan or what may be termed as its strategic culture. The conduct of negotiations with Taliban and the resultant deal shows that and has helped in further distorting the internal and external balance.

The US-Taliban negotiations and deal created certain perceptions (correct or not) among many, both Afghans and non-Afghans: US is in a hurry to leave, and Taliban have won/are winning. Afghan Government has become very weak and is about to collapse and finally Pakistan has gained tremendously. These perceptions are creating new and intensifying existing fault lines.

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The perception, US in a hurry coupled with the perception of Taliban victory, had hardened the Taliban during negotiations; and reflected in the deal too. This led to resumption of attacks on government troops and attempt to take back Helmand. The US had to use air power to reduce the intensity of the attacks and protect Helmand. Taliban’s refusal to start intra Afghan dialogue unless 5,000 Taliban are released, rejecting the offer of release of 1,500, showed they don’t feel the urge to compromise. The going back of the Afghan Government on the prisoners’ release has further strengthened the Taliban perception of victory. Their declaring the Government negotiating team as non-inclusive has furthered their confidence resulting in more attacks and territorial gains. For any negotiated settlement, readiness to compromise is a pre-requisite.  A balanced deal cannot result from perceptions of victory, but from a surrender deal. The Taliban seems to be looking towards such a result of any intra Afghan dialogue, if and when held.

The perception of Taliban victory and US hurry has resulted in the perception of weakness of the Afghan Government, which has intensified the existing differences among the non-Taliban Afghans, whether part of the government or outside of it. The inability of the Afghans to resolve the elections dispute by themselves or with the help/intervention of US – at least partly – is a result of this intensification. The international community’s recognition of President Ghani may bolster Afghan Government, and slightly lower the influence of such perception and its impact. However, Sec. Pompeo’s statements after his recent visit and developments (mentioned above) has pulled the rug from under any such strengthening

Pakistan feels it has achieved diplomatically a lot as a result of the whole process. Other interested states, especially India and also Iran cannot take that lightly. Their ability to influence the resulting situation, though limited is not absent. Their resistance to the balance in Afghanistan tilting towards Pakistan to an uncomfortable level can and is intensifying existing tensions beyond the borders of Afghanistan; Pak India tensions including in Kashmir, Religious extremism in both India and Pakistan, as well as Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, even if not the exclusive result of the Afghan situation is definitely influenced by it. Religious extremism and sectarianism will logically re kindle terrorism. Sectarian conflict will make Taliban to find ways to go around honoring the requirement of break with Al Qaeda. These increased regional tensions will impact peacemaking inside Afghanistan to a deterministic level.

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Pakistan needs to exercise self-restraint. The attendance of President Ashraf Ghani’s oath taking ceremony by Pakistan’s ambassador and PM Imran Khan’s felicitations to him and relaxing the closing of international borders due to the coronavirus pandemic to let Cargo pass to Afghanistan are positive indicators. However, more symbolic and real actions will help Pakistan’s interests and peace. The perception that Pakistan is happy with the peace deal is not due to its belief that it will help in peace but because it considers its vindication of Afghan policy and considers the deal a Taliban victory. Pakistan has to learn a peaceful Afghanistan which is not harmful to its interests cannot be an Afghanistan where regional balance of interests is lost, even if it appears to favor it momentarily. US needs to back up its diplomatic efforts, with real on ground actions, to dispel the perceptions of hurry and defeat as well as a new perception of its abandoning the Afghan Government, if it wants to leave a peaceful Afghanistan.

However, the tragic coronavirus pandemic that has taken away focus from Afghanistan, can be turned into an opportunity for peace and strengthen the role of Afghan people in their country’s affairs. Coronavirus pandemic may slow down diplomatic efforts in more than one way, but if the government supported by the international community tries to reach out to all Afghans, Taliban or non-Taliban, without any conditions can help in weakening the barriers.

International diplomatic efforts should focus more on convincing all sides to not permit their continued conflict hinder internal or external efforts against the coronavirus pandemic challenge. If Mr. Pompeo had given more importance to this and made some headway, he would have achieved a lot. Pakistan can and should use its influence on Taliban and others to convince them to permit Government or non-Government organizations as well as other states, specially all regional states reaching out to control the Pandemic, should go unhindered. This can be a strong argument to convince all sides to cease hostilities for the duration. This can help create pressure on all sides to compromise and restore both internal and external balance, leading to peace.

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