Peace Talks with Afghan Taliban and its Implications for Pakistan
Dr Farhan Zahid
Negotiation leading toward a peaceful solution for a longstanding politically violent conflict is generally the desire of neighboring nations. In the recent past, several terrorist campaigns have ended after rounds of talks resulting inpeaceful solutions in countries such as Algeria, Ireland, Colombia, Peru and others. However, peace talks resulting in lasting negotiated settlements are particularly elusive with Islamist terrorist groups. Islamist terrorist groups are typically absolutist and manichean in their approach and mostly reluctant to hold peace talks with the states through mediators and at times only do that under conditions suitable to their ideological causes or when facing imminent military defeat.
In the case of the Afghan Taliban, the situation is much more complex. There have been rounds of peace talks with the group over the last 15 years, yielding more or less no results. Long campaigns of political violence detrimentally affect countries in close proximity and such is the case for Afghanistan’s eastern neighbor, Pakistan. Whether peace is attained in Afghanistan or not, there is a likelihood for serious implications for Pakistan.
Current State of Affairs
Peace talks appear to be faltering and there is no military solution in sight. It seems peace talks are not working. There are 14000 US troops (down from 100,000 in 2014) plus 8,000 NATO troops (Al-Jazeera, Feb 14, 2019) ; the US fatalities stand at 2,500 with 20,000 injuries during last 17 years of war in Afghanistan and the cost of war in Afghanistan is estimated to be $1 trillion. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) appears unprepared, ill-trained and resultantly unlikely to defeat the Islamist insurgents in near future, having suffered 43,574 deaths in 2018. (VOA, Jan 14, 2019)
The current state of affairs in Afghanistan does not present a rosy picture. The growing Taliban violence has resulted in massive ANSF casualties and the Taliban controls more territory than any time since 2001 despite Afghan Taliban-US peace talks recently held in Doha, Qatar. President Donald Trump’s announcement in December 2018 of his desire to withdraw troops indicates a major upcoming turn in US foreign policy. For some time, it seemed that peace talks were becoming more viable as enthusiastic efforts were made by Zalmay Khalilzad, a seasoned American diplomat and expert negotiator of Afghan descent, but as of March 2019 no concrete conclusion could be drawn.
Implications for Pakistan
Several possible scenarios could be analyzed amid recent peace talks in Afghanistan. Each has significant implications for Pakistan, some positive positive and some negative.
Despite significant challenges ahead, there is a possibility that peace is achieved after successful rounds of talks with the Afghan Taliban, resulting in the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2020.
Another possibility connected to this scenario is the relieving of US forces (drone strikes and Special Ops) pressure on anti-Pakistan terrorist groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Islamic State-Khorasan hiding the eastern provinces of Afghanistan. A number of TTP commanders, such as Fazalullah and others, have been killed by US strikes and other operations, and similar is the case of IS-K whose first four Emirs were killed by the US forces based in Afghanistan.
This may result in Afghan Taliban, or significant factions of it, breaching the agreements and launching a campaign against the new Afghan regime, and potentially causing another collapse of the Afghan government. Such a scenario would likely lead to the outbreak of civil war, and chaos reminiscent to what happened in 1990 after the withdrawal of Soviet troops after the Geneva accord signed in 1989. For Pakistan, despite its alleged ties to the Afghan Taliban, this could be a worst case scenario as it may spark violence to neighboring provinces in Pakistan, the exodus of refugees into the country, massacres, human and women rights violations, while bolstering al-Qaeda and and other foreign Islamist terrorists. It is not unreasonable to consider this scenario seeing Afghanistan return to being a base of operations for international terrorism as it was before the US invasion in October 2001.
Secondly, the chances of a status quo of conflict in Afghanistan are also bright and that does not suit neighboring Pakistan. If fighting continues and Afghan Taliban numbers keep rising (currently estimated to be around 50-60 000) the rural areas would eventually fall to Taliban control leaving behind only urban centers in Afghan government’s hands. This situation would allow further weakening of Afghan government and rise of militias in every corner of Afghanistan, a situation highly unfavorable for Pakistan.
Thirdly, this is also possible that if Khalilzad succeeds, there may be a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, reintegration of Afghan Taliban into Afghan society, new elections and new government, end of violence and no place for foreign terrorist groups in Afghanistan. This is a situation that policy makers in Pakistan would definitely love and try to capitalize for building its own dilapidated economy and rebuilding peace in Pakistan.
Another issue apart from these scenarios is that that the success – or perceived success – of Afghan Taliban would create a sense of victory among Pakistani Islamist groups and this would be a morale boosting situation for those operating in Pakistan. Most of the Pakistani Islamist terrorist groups consider Afghan Taliban as a role model regime, and in case of Taliban success they would likely adopt same tactics.
Afghan Taliban are Islamist by virtue of their adherence to ultra-orthodox Deobandi sect of Islam and are known for their stubborn and inflexible attitudes. They also remain close to al-Qaeda and have never condemned its violence. Hence, it would be much harder for mediators to adjust to their hardline approaches and somehow manage to drive them towards a peaceful solution.
In current economic turmoil of Pakistan, the peace in Afghanistan is best suited for attracting foreign investments in the country. An unstable Afghanistan would also further damage Pakistan’s repute. This is perhaps one reason Pakistani policy makers are keen to play their part in bringing Afghan Taliban to peace talks and a possible solution for ending this long war. Pakistan needs to play its role for its own sake and efforts must continue for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan though not in sight at the moment.