The much awaited intra-Afghan talks in Doha, Qatar, were sandwiched between bouts of violence. Days before the talks were to begin, Afghanistan's first Vice-President Amrullah Saleh was targeted with a bomb blast in Kabul, which killed ten civilians. During the talks itself, attacks and fights erupted across 18 out of the country's 34 provinces.
On the other hand, to make the seemingly impossible talks possible, and create a conducive atmosphere, the Afghan government released 5,000 prisoners including some "hardcore" militants much against its wishes. The Taliban too released 1,000 soldiers that it had captured.
The intra-Afghan talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban-held on September 12, ironically one day after the 19th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the US-were the patient outcome of American diplomacy that forced the two sides to the negotiating table. Supposed to be held within ten days of the historic US-Taliban agreement on February 29 in Doha, the talks were delayed due to the recalcitrant stand taken by the two parties-both of which did not want to talk with the other.
Notably, the Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, was not too happy at being kept out of the US-Taliban talks. It was also unhappy about the fact that American and Nato troops would be going back from the war-ravaged country. Ghani pointed out that the Taliban consistently violated the provisions of the US-Taliban agreement by not stopping the attacks on Afghan security forces.
However, US President Donald Trump was clear that he was withdrawing his soldiers from the Afghan battlefield and that the two sides had to talk to find out an Afghan solution.
Interestingly, it seems that except for the Afghan government everyone else is keen that the Americans pull out. The Taliban is more than happy as it smells power. Pakistan is satisfied that the US is withdrawing as it seeks a proxy government in Afghanistan though the Taliban. The myriad militant groups are happy. Trump too is keen that Americans have no business in Afghanistan and they should resolve it between themselves. He, through the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, is eager to fulfill his promise to the American voters to bring the troops back.
For the moment, the September 12 talks between the 21-member negotiating teams are led by the Taliban's lead negotiator Sheikh Abdul Hakim, a scholar-cleric, and Masoom Stanekzai, a former intelligence chief, for the Afghan government. Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, and four women too are at the talks from the Afghan government's side.
Based on the US-Taliban agreement, the talks are focused on just two things-a comprehensive ceasefire and a power-sharing arrangement. Both are complicated. From February 29 till now, the Taliban has not shown an inclination to hold back its attacks. Quite the contrary; it has increased attacks on both the government forces as well as civilians. Regarding power-sharing between the Taliban and the government, Taliban has not specified clearly what it wants under both the provisions.
Qatar, which has been facilitating the talks between the Americans and the Taliban, extended an invite to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to join the inaugural session of the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha on 12 September. Jaishankar highlighted India's role as a major development partner of Afghanistan with its development assistance in the form of over 400 projects in all the 34 provinces.
The Minister also said that any peace process must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled; and it has to respect the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan. He added that the interests of minorities, women and vulnerable sections of society must be preserved and the issue of violence across the country and its neighbourhood has to be effectively addressed.
India has always been apprehensive of the Taliban and various other militant groups which have been inimical to India's interests. It has, therefore, maintained an arm's distance from the Taliban but is bracing itself for an Afghan government with the Taliban as an important component. The global geo-political matrix has changed much this year, owing to the spread of the deadly coronavirus from Wuhan this year, and is changing even faster in the Indian neighbourhood due to the Chinese aggression on the Indian border.
For India, what is worrisome is that China, using its all-weather ally Pakistan, is trying to squeeze itself into the vacuum that the US will create. The dragon had reached out to Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan in August with an offer that Afghanistan accepts the Belt and Road Initiative and connects with Pakistan using the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It is this matrix-the Taliban in the Afghan government, Pakistan's bigger role in Afghanistan courtesy the Taliban, and China's role in Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan-that is bothersome for India.
Now that the first round of face-to-face talks has finally taken place between two steadfast adversaries, we continue to watch this fast-evolving space.
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