The latest visit by a senior US diplomat Alice Wells took place just a few days ahead of a regional consultative meeting at Moscow involving Iran, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the host Russia. A Taliban delegation will also join the talks.
Alice Well’s stop-over in Islamabad came to the backdrop of a few rounds of overt and covert direct US-Taliban talks. Most detractors had laughed off the proposal of direct talks as Pakistan’s “vested interest.” Some had called it the “result of Islamabad’s obsession with the notion strategic depth.” Others had dubbed it as bias towards its proxies (Taliban).
But by getting directly in touch with the Taliban, the US administration finally shunned its opposition to directly engaging the Afghan Taliban, thereby acknowledging an unavoidable ground reality. Taliban have managed to bleed the country. The year 2018 has sofar been the bloodiest. The perpetration of violence by ISKP/Daesh fuels the conflict further.
Forced by these circumstances, the US opened direct talks with the Doha-based Taliban, and is set to follow-up the first two informal rounds with more talks, and essentially turning its earlier position on its head; from terrorists and hosts of dreaded Al-Qaeda , the US is now treating TTA as a much sought after direct interlocutor, and literally enforced the release of five important leaders from the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison. Their release is likely to unleash the next round of reconciliation-focused discussions with Washington.
And , to top it all, Gen. Scott Miller, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, thinks ” now is the time to start working through the political piece of this conflict”.
“My assessment is the Taliban also realizes they cannot win militarily. So if you realize you can’t win militarily at some point, fighting is just, people start asking why. So you do not necessarily wait us out, but I think now is the time to start working through the political piece of this conflict.”
President Trump’s desperation to flag some success for a face-saving exit and continued casualties seem to be the main triggers for the transformation in the US strategy on Afghanistan.
And hence the direct negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, who have agreed to participate in the proposed Moscow too. Following initial refusal, President Ashraf Ghani, too, has apparently agreed to send in a delegation of the High Peace Council (HPC) for participation in the crucial meeting set for later this week.
But, following the virtual demise of the Quadrilateral Contact Group (QCG), and the US readiness to engage with the Taliban, the Moscow round can be crucial in many ways.
Firstly, it brings most of the direct regional stakeholders together, all those who find themselves on one page for the future roadmap
Secondly, in a rare move, this round will bring Taliban and the National Unity Government representatives face to face – despite reservations about each other; the former reject NUG altogether and hence their insistence sofar on direct talks with the US (which foots the bulk of the bill for the entire Afghan government). Ghani on his part has been calling for talks but still hesitant in sitting next to Taliban representatives at a mediated forum Thirdly, the Trump administration faces mounting pressure at home, with questions being asked about the justification for the continued presence in Afghanistan. Almost half of Americans (49%) think the U.S. has “mostly failed” in Afghanistan. The latest PEW survey also says, that only about one-third of Americans think the country’s longest war has been a success, and that 39% of them say it was the wrong idea to use military force.
Michael Kugelman, South Asia Deputy Director at the Wilson Center, says “No matter how you slice it, this war has gone from bad to worse. Little wonder it’s so unpopular.”
Fourth, 17 years ago, Pakistan’s efforts to convince the Bush Administration about the futility of military option fell on deaf ears. Today, it is following exactly the same advice. Then, the Bush administration was fuming and directed the entire Operation Enduring Freedom at Al-Qaeda and its hosts. Now, 17 years down the late, the hosts are the major acceptable dialogue partners, and Daesh has replaced Al-Qaeda in the war strategy.
US goalposts have shifted, it seems.
Fifth, for too long the US and allies projected Pakistan’s emphasis on engagement with the Taliban as an advocacy for its “Pashtoon proxies” whereas the reality has been that Pashtoons are the largest ethnic group and have kept the insurgency alive – drawing support presumably from their support base from inside the country. Here its not just Pakistan; China, Russia, Central Asian States, Iran and Turkey are all singing the same song just because the ground reality dictates so.
Lastly, the grand consensus – Moscow Process and the US-Taliban engagement – should make the cockcrowing on terrorist safe havens in Pakistan, its alleged support for Taliban or the occasional objections on the Pakistani border management practically redundant.
The way forward rests on an all-inclusive approach on reconciliation. The message from Beijing, Moscow, Turkey and Tehran as well as most central Asian Republics is loud and clear; Pakistan alone cannot be held responsible for the problem as well as the resolution. Secondly, peace might remain elusive if Iran – the second most important strategic neighbor of Afghanistan beside Pakistan – is kept out of the peace process. The latest sanctions hardly augur well for the Afghan reconciliation.