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Exit America, Enter Chaos?

With the Biden administration antsy to pull out of Afghanistan come May, can the warring sides in Afghanistan reach a deal in time to avert a descent into hell?

The signs are not encouraging.

A superpower eager to exit Afghanistan after conclusively failing to impose any semblance of peace; a government in Kabul too weak to stand on its own; and large swathes of the country held by an adversary so plucky it will not deign to discuss peace with Kabul.

The last time all these signs aligned was in 1988 – and Afghanistan descended into a chaos so dark the world is suffering its repercussions still today thirty-three years later.

President Joe Biden’s compulsion to meet the pull-out deadline agreed by the Trump administration is understandable. Extricat- ing America from “endless wars” was part of his electoral platform. Any flexibility the administration shows in this connection will invite criticism from Republicans as well as from Biden’s own Democrats.

Somewhat less understandable, at this distance at least, is Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s pointed emphasis on the 1 May 2021 deadline for the full withdrawal of American forces.

But the most unkindest cut of all was this coming from Blinken, “Even with the continuation of financial assistance from the United States to your forces after an American military withdrawal, I am concerned that the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains.

“I am making this clear to you so that you understand the urgency of my tone regarding the collective work outlined in this letter”. Taliban political envoys and an Afghan government team have not made any progress over the past six months in negotiations to decide a future political roadmap, the American peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has floated a power sharing formula that could help the two sides reach a political settlement that ends the war.”

The Taliban and the government team had started intra-Afghan negotiations on 12 September 2020 but have not even agreed on an agenda when there is no let-up in violence. Concerns are growing for further spike in violence as weather changes and a new fighting season is fast approaching.

Lack of progress in negotiations among Afghans to agree to a future political roadmap and continued violence may have forced the US to come up with its proposals.

But do the Americans realise intra-Afghan dialogue is a twosome game? How can you put the entire onus of making peace on Kabul? Where is the incentive for the Taliban to sit down with Pres. Ghani? More to the point, where is the disincentive for them not sitting down for talks?

It appears the Americans are counting on Pakistan to bring the Taliban to heel. However, Islamabad has repeatedly made clear its leverage over the Taliban is little more than moral suasion. There is no way Pakistan can convince the Taliban to talk or make peace unless they are willing to do so on their own.

Khalilzad held talks with the Afghan government and political leaders in Kabul and the Taliban in Doha earlier this month and shared his plan that also suggests a new constitution. This was Khalilzad’s first interaction with Kabul and the Taliban under the Biden administration. Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib and the Taliban spokesman Dr. Mohammad Naeem confirmed on 7 March that the US envoy shared with them the plan and that they are reviewing the draft and will formally respond later.

The US envoy also discussed his plan with Pakistani leaders during his visit on 8 March and sought their support for the initiative. Khalilzad’s three-part Afghanistan Peace Agreement explains the guiding principles for Afghanistan’s future, proposes a transitional peace government and political roadmap and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.

The plan addresses the Taliban calls for establishment of an Islamic government to some extent as it says “a new High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence shall be established to provide Islamic guidance and advice to all national and local government structures.” The High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence shall have a role in advising the judiciary.

A fifteen-member High Council of Islamic Jurisprudence (the “Islamic Council”) shall be established within days of this agreement, to provide Islamic guidance on social, cultural, and other contemporary issues

“A transitional Peace Government of Afghanistan shall be established as of the date of this Agreement. The Peace Government shall exist until it transfers power to a permanent government follow- ing the adoption of a new Constitution and national elections,” according to the draft.

The Executive Administration shall consist of a President, a Prime Minister, Vice- Presidents, Deputy Prime Ministers, cabinet ministers, heads of independent directorates, and other bodies. The draft has recommended a new constitution and suggests a 21-member commission for its preparation, to be established within 30 days of the agreement taking effect, with 10 members named by each party to this agreement and the President naming the 21st member. Members of the constitutional commission will include both Islamic and contemporary legal experts.

Each side shall immediately announce and implement, within hours an end to all military and offensive operations and hostile activities against the other. Neither party shall, under any circumstances, proactively attack individuals or units associated with the other. If either party takes action against the other in perceived self-defence, it shall immediately seek to de-escalate and report the action to the Ceasefire Commission.

It would be very difficult to convince the Taliban to accept any new formula in the presence of the Doha agreement. The Taliban “Rehbari Shura” or leadership council, the lone powerful decision-making body, have not discussed any new option since signing of the Doha agreement in February 2010 as the Taliban leaders still hope the agreement will be implemented.

Any change in the Doha agreement or considering a new plan like one Khalilzad’s power-sharing formula could not be accept- able to the Taliban as the group will not be willing to join the leaders of Pres Ghani’s incumbent administration. They could probably soften their position if Ghani resigns or the present set up is replaced by what the Taliban call an Islamic govern- ment with participation of all groups.

“We have already rejected the Kabul administration’s proposal to join the present set-up as it is not reconciliation but a surrender,” a Taliban negotiator told The Truth International last week.

Islamabad had been the centre of hectic diplomatic activity over the past few weeks to explore ways for making the peace process result-oriented.

Afghan presidential envoy Umer Daudzai, Russian presidential envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, Special Envoy of the Foreign Minister of Qatar for Counterter- rorism and Mediation of Conflict Resolu- tion Mutlaq bin Majed Al-Qahtani and American CENTCOM chief Gen Kenneth F McKenzie Jr discussed Pakistan’s role in the peace process with Pakistani leaders.

Daudzai represented Afghanistan in the first meeting of a Pakistan-Afghan group on the peace process that was formed during Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Afghanistan last November. The two neighbours are now holding formal talks with Afghanistan on the peace process.

Officials familiar with the talks between Pakistani and Afghan leader say Kabul wants Pakistan’s help in a joint conference of Pakistani and Afghan religious scholars to issue a decree against the war in Afghanistan

as now the Taliban are fighting the Afghan forces. This has been a long-standing demand of Afghanistan that Pakistani scholars should issue a “fatwa”proscribing armed struggle in Afghanistan – like the one they issued to help Pakistan overcome militancy.

Pakistani officials told The Truth Interna- tional that Russia has informed Islamabad it wants to revive the Moscow-format consultations to evolve regional consensus to take the peace process forward.

Russia had started the Moscow-format consultations in 2017 with the involvement of regional countries in the Afghan peace process, but had put it on ice after President Ashraf Ghani started an alternate initiative called the Kabul Process.

It was believed that the US was behind the Kabul Process to scuttle the Moscow consultations even as they were gainingmo- mentum. The Kabul Process is almost dead now.

Diplomatic sources privy to the Qatari envoy’s discussions in Pakistan told The Truth International that he was “upset at the Taliban’s tough position” in the peace process and sought Pakistan’s help to convince the Taliban to show flexibility to take the peace process forward.

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