Peace talks with Taleban will be a victory for Afghans
Whatever it takes and whoever it involves, a well thought-out peace deal followed by an intra-Afghan dialogue and a reintegration of all combatants must happen for a wider agreement and a sustainable peace.
Celebrating Thanksgiving over turkey and mashed potatoes with his country's troops in Afghanistan, US President Donald Trump last week said peace talks are on with the Taleban. The next day the Taleban said they were ready to resume the talks. Welcoming what it called Trump's "continued willingness to pursue political settlement," neighbouring Pakistan said it would "continue to support and facilitate the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan." The facilitation seems to have continued all along even after the US president had officially scuttled the process a couple of months ago.
A draft accord agreed in September would have resulted in the withdrawal of thousands of US troops from the country in exchange for guarantees that the Taleban would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for militant attacks on the US or its allies. But early that month, Trump declared the negotiations 'dead' following an attack in Afghanistan's capital Kabul. The Taleban took responsibility for it and consequently opened new battlefronts across the country. Now during a meeting on Thursday with Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, at the main base for the US forces north of Kabul, Trump said: "The Taleban want to make a deal, and we're meeting with them."
The group has confirmed to Reuters news agency that they have been holding meetings with senior US officials in Doha, adding they could soon resume formal peace talks. A prisoner swap - three senior Taleban leaders for two Western professors - was agreed a few days ago between Washington and Kabul, which shows they have been engaged in informal talks. Two days after this exchange, in his call to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, President Trump acknowledged Pakistan's support in the recovery process of the hostages and hoped that "this positive development will contribute to furthering the peace process in Afghanistan."
A political settlement is the only way out of the war. But the road may still be bumpy, hard, and a lengthy one at that.
Nearly two months after elections for the president, results in Afghanistan have been repeatedly delayed. The dispute threatens to erupt into a large-scale political crisis and make brokering peace for the incumbent president Ashraf Ghani difficult. He was shut out of the previous talks as the Taleban refused to engage with what they call is an "illegitimate" US-backed government.
Timing of a ceasefire has been a matter of contention. "We say it has to be a cease-fire and they didn't want to do a cease-fire and now they want to do a cease-fire, I believe. It will probably work out that way," Trump said in Kabul. However, no evidence has emerged on whether the Taleban who control nearly half of Afghanistan are willing to oblige. Instead, it has said it would discuss the possibility in talks with Afghanistan's political leaders over the future of the country once the Americans agree to leave. There are about 13,000 US forces as well as thousands of other Nato troops in Afghanistan.
Trump is looking for foreign policy achievements that he can celebrate on the campaign trail over the next year, and sees an opportunity in Afghanistan. The US president has hinted at reducing his country's military presence to 8,600 troops.
Trump's efforts for striking a peace deal in Afghanistan before the impending US presidential elections can be taken both with hope for an early deal and caution against a hasty one. But at the same time alarming is his indifference to the outcome of talks. A premature withdrawal could lead to a civil war, as has happened in the 1990s.
A well thought-out peace deal followed by an intra-Afghan dialogue and a reintegration of all combatants must happen for a wider agreement and a sustainable peace instead of a long-term bloodshed. Expectation may be low but Afghans are eager for peace. They need a normal life that has eluded them for decades!
-Waqar Mustafa is a journalist and commentator based in Lahore, Pakistan