Politico-military situation in Afghanistan is quite complex. As regards military balance of power, James R Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, recently warned that fighting in Afghanistan will be “more intense” this year than 2015 and that Afghans will continue to face “sustained attacks” by the Taliban in 2016. According to the Pentagon, the Taliban is capable of contesting and taking key terrains in Afghanistan and it poses a “formidable” and “enduring” challenge to the Afghan national unity government.
On political side, President Ashraf Ghani is not taking any bold initiative, his outreach to Taliban factions is limited to small entities having little military capacity. Militarily significant Taliban outfits continue to reject calls for any possible end to the war. Peace is preconditioned by them with full withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan. Taliban are able to carry out high-profile attacks in all parts of the country, more than ever before; such ground realities make it hard for the Afghan people to swallow the idea that US troops are present to continue the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. Growing strength of the Taliban and the failure of US military strategies to counter their attacks supports the notion that there could be no military solution to the war in Afghanistan. Over the past 15 years. No lessons have been learnt by the Afghan- US side; and there is insistence on repeating the mistakes.
War in Afghanistan is a creation and, therefore, Afghans are urging an end to a needless war. The Taliban’s growing military might is posing a thorny strategic question for President Barack Obama: Either Keep the stringent rules limiting the numbers of strikes in place and risk seeing the militants continue to gain ground, or allow American pilots to bomb a broader array of targets at the risk of deepening Washington’s combat role in Afghanistan; and as a result, further diminish the chances of any progress in the evasive peace process.
Pakistan has consistently been advocating to end the decades long war and sufferings endured by the Afghan people. Peace in Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s vital interest. A promising beginning had been made to foster a negotiating process for peace talks in the last couple of months. Positive momentum was generated by the successful meeting of the Heart of Asia process hosted by Islamabad and jointly inaugurated by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Ashraf Ghani. This led to the decision by Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China to create a Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) to provide decisive impetus to Afghanistan’s peace efforts.
Success of this new mechanism was predicated on the shared commitment and shared responsibility of each of its four members.
Task ahead for QCG is complex and arduous and prudence demands that expectations be kept realistic and strategic patience should be exercised. It is essential now to create an enabling environment to operationalize and sustain a peace process that is, at least notionally, Afghan-led. A number of factors are critical to establishing such an environment. There should be consistent and unified positions and declarations from the Afghan government affirming its commitment to work for a negotiated peace. In this regard recent statements by the Afghan leadership and the revamping of the High Peace Council are steps in the right direction. Also, there must be a demonstrated capacity by the Afghan security forces to hold territory on their own. This would help create conditions for the Taliban to return to the negotiating table. And, all four members of the QCG must use their respective influence and political capital to contribute to the success of the process.
Pakistan is playing its due part by offering to host direct talks between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban. Limitation of Pakistan’s influence got exposed recently. Reportedly, Pakistani officials threatened to expel Afghanistan’s Taliban from bases in Pakistan if they did not join peace talks, but the militants rebuffed the notion. Taliban have won new zones of influence and control from Afghan security forces. They no longer need their Pakistan bases in the same way as they did in 2014 and before, so if Pakistan threatens to expel them, it does not have the same effect. Taliban’s Supreme Council has voted to reject the talks scheduled for March. Taliban are now pouring into potential combat zones for what they say will be a fierce spring offensive to be launched soon.
Earlier on March 07, The United States renewed its appeal to the Taliban to join peace talks and said Afghan and the US forces would have to prepare themselves for the prospect of increased violence in the spring and summer if the insurgent group did not agree to negotiations. Taliban leadership responded by asking its fighters to hide in the mountains to avoid any losses due to stepped-up American bombing.
State Department spokesman John Kirby has said that the United States backed a call by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for the Taliban to join talks with the Kabul government. “They have a choice. Rather than continuing to fight their fellow Afghans and destabilizing their country, they should engage in a peace process and ultimately become a legitimate part of the political system of a sovereign united Afghanistan,” Kirby said.
Heavy fighting has continued over the winter from Helmand in the south to Jowzjan province in the north. In a rare exception this time Taliban continued their tactical attacks even during harsh winters; earlier, each year they used to take a break from fighting from November to March. Taliban’s recent success on the battlefield inside Afghanistan has changed the equation. They have little incentive to step off the battlefield.
A member of the Taliban’s leadership council, recently said that rebel representatives met in Islamabad with Pakistani officials a little more than two weeks ago. “They have asked our representatives to bring more decision-making people to the next meeting … to the meeting with US and Afghan officials. This is their dream, but they will not be able to see our senior commanders,” the Taliban council member said.
Publicly, both the Afghan and Pakistani government are expressing hopes that peace talks can begin before the traditional Taliban spring offensive. However, unless Afghan government announces major concessions, the stalemate may continue to persist.
A senior general for the United States in Afghanistan has praised Pakistan’s efforts of putting pressure on terrorists operating in Afghanistan and for the constant support to push Taliban to join the peace process. “We have been pleased with Pakistan’s efforts in two ways: one, their pressure against the Taliban in Pakistan. And then also their agreement to put pressure on the Taliban to join the peace process,” said Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, Deputy Chief of Staff for communication, Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. “They have been a willing partner with the Afghans, which we’re encouraged by,” Shoffner said referring to Pakistan. He further emphasised that Afghan and Pakistani governments have a regional approach to dealing with problems in the area. “It can’t just be an Afghan approach or a Pakistan approach; it has got to be a regional approach, because the international terrorists here do not — or the terrorists here do not respect the international boundaries.”
Pakistan has conveyed to UN Security Council on March 16 that a negotiated peace in Afghanistan is the best and only hope for stability and prosperity for the country and the entire region. Speaking in the Council’s debate on Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UN said that it was gratifying that the international community had reached a firm consensus that a political settlement was the only way to achieve peace in Afghanistan.
[A variant of this peace was carried by the Nation on March 21, 2016]
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.