The situation is darkly unique even for Afghanistan, a country where darkly unique situations bubble up almost every day.
The hope for peace in Afghanistan was so real a few weeks ago but it is getting smothered by the events that have piled up thick and fast.
The peace agreement signed between the Taliban and the US, in Doha on 29 February 2020, gave a clear timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, release of the prisoners, and start of the intra-Afghan dialogue.
The deal was immediately clouded by uncertainty when the Ghani administration said that it was not bound to release any prisoners. Later, on being prompted by the US, the Afghan government reluctantly agreed to the release but issued a list that did not cover any genuine Taliban prisoners. Instead, it was mostly a list of hardened criminals.
Simultaneously, Ashraf Ghani took oath for another term as the president of Afghanistan even though the elections were so controversial that it took the election commission five months to announce the results.
Dr. Abdullah, who believes that he had actually won the elections, also took oath of office as the president of Afghanistan in a separate ceremony the same day.
The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Monday (23 March 2020) to convince Ghani and Abdullah to work together for the sake of peace in Afghanistan. He had separate meetings with Ghani and Abdullah but failed to convince them to work together.
A statement by the US department of state on the Pompeo visit says, “The United States is disappointed in them and what their conduct means for Afghanistan and our shared interests. Their failure has harmed US-Afghan relations and, sadly, dishonors those Afghan, Americans, and Coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country.”
Pompeo said that the US will reduce its aid to Afghanistan by USD one billion this year and another one billion next year if Ghani and Abdullah remain adamant in their antagonism to each other.
The budget of Afghanistan for 2020-2021 is USD 5.5 billion. The expenditures would be USD 3.5 billion, and USD 2 billion would be pumped into development projects. The revenues would possibly be around USD 2.3 billion and the rest would be met from foreign aid and other sources. The withdrawal of American funds to the tune of one billion dollars will seriously disturb the budget.
Right after leaving Kabul, Pompeo flew to Doha where he met the Taliban leadership. After the meeting, he spoke to the media and said that the Taliban were consistent with the agreement signed with the US in Qatar last month. “They (Taliban) committed to reducing violence; they have largely done that, and then they are working towards delivering their team to the ultimate negotiations,”
As if there were not enough complications already, on Wednesday (25 March 2020) some armed intruders swarmed a Sikh temple – Gurdwara – in Kabul and gunned down 25 worshippers including children. ISIS has claimed the responsibility.
And the biggest X factor is Covid-19. The official sources say that about 100 people including 4 NATO troops have been diagnosed with the coronavirus infection and the provinces bordering Iran have been sealed off. This doesn’t mean that there are not many infected people in Afghanistan – it just means that there are hardly any diagnostic facilities except for some major cities and there is no telling as to how many people are actually infected and in what way and what areas the virus could be spreading.
Nevertheless, there is still hope.
The Taliban and the Ghani administration announced on Wednesday, 25 March 2020, that the mechanism had been agreed for the mutual release of prisoners. According to Doha agreement of 29 February 2020, the ghani administration is obliged to release 5000 prisoners nominated by the Taliban, and the Taliban will release 1000 prisoners belonging to the government structures. The announcement on Wednesday says that the Ghani administration will release 100 prisoners on 31 March 2020.
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The main question here is – Who doesn’t want peace in Afghanistan?
The answer is not obtainable except through circumstantial evidence and the principle of establishing or discarding ‘reasonable doubt.’
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First, let’s look at the USA.
The Americans definitely want peace regardless of its shape and size as long as it is helpful in getting Trump reelected. They are also tired of an aimless war.
The peace deal with the Taliban just wants the assurance that the territory of Afghanistan will not be used by any group or organization against the Americans and their allies.
Pompeo, in his latest meeting with the Taliban, has acknowledged that the Taliban were keeping with their commitment to refrain from violence against the American troops in Afghanistan.
The talks of Wednesday that gave the hope of start of prisoner swap were with the participation of the American side.
All of this gives reasonable assurance that the Americans do want peace in Afghanistan, or at least the conditions that may allow them to leave with some grace.
On the other hand, the USA wants Ghani and Adullah to work together. This is anomaly if we go by the basic definition of democracy – the victor of elections gets to form the government.
If the Americans believe that Ghani has actually won the elections, he should not be pressured to carry Abdullah with him.
On the flip side of the coin, if they think that Abdullah may have won the elections and the results of the elections are a product of some kind of manipulation, they should say so openly. In such case, their support for Ghani defies their rhetoric on democracy.
Clearly, what they actually want is a government in Kabul that should be strong enough to stalemate the Taliban, democratically elected or not.
Also, it is widely believed that the USA has possibly played some role in the creation of ISIS (Daesh, ISIL) in Afghanistan. There are consistent reports of the ISIS militants being transported in the American helicopters.
The ISIS attack on the Sikh temple in Kabul this Wednesday is a huge act of disruption in the peace process. Earlier this month, ISIS attacked a gathering of Shia Muslims in Afghanistan, resulting in 32 deaths. Several high profile people including the former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, have accused the USA of creating ISIS.
The location of the ISIS troops is generally known. In a society like Afghanistan an alien organism cannot thrive and move about without public knowledge and someone’s support. As to why the American forces have not taken any decisive action against the ISIS when they know that the Taliban would support such an action is a question no one can answer.
This creates reasonable doubts about the true intentions of the American side.
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As far as the Ghani administration is concerned, there is no secret that it is against the US-Taliban deal for so many reasons.
Also, one should keep in mind that Amrullah Saleh, the vice president of Afghanistan with the current Ghani team is a staunch enemy of the Taliban. He is also the former head of the secret service (NDS) of Afghanistan.
The obstinacy of the Ghani administration in the start of prisoner release, and the refusal to form an acceptable team for intra-Afghan dialogue are just two of the reasons to create reasonable doubt about the intentions of the Ghani administration for peace in Afghanistan.
Without sounding frivolous, it can be said that the people surrounding Ghani thrive in the present conditions of war and they are rather terrified of peace because the peace is more than likely to bring the Taliban closer to the base of power.
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The factions allied with Dr. Abdullah are mostly the former warlords. Abdullah himself is a former warlord.
They are not averse to working together with the Taliban. Abdullah sent a delegation for the round of talks with inclusion of Taliban that was held in Moscow. He has also lauded the US-Taliban peace deal.
Whatever the demerits of Abdullah, and there may be many, he has remained firmly attached with the soil. He is not an imported or implanted entity. He has gone through the hardships together with the Afghan people throughout the turbulent period that started with the Soviet invasion.
There are no grounds to create the reasonable doubt that Abdullah is against the peace. The caveat here is that the peace should be suitable for him and his allies.
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The Taliban are obviously a partner for peace as their deal with the US shows. They are also willing to work together with anyone to eliminate ISIS from the Afghan soil.
There are no grounds for any kind of doubt that the Taliban could be against the peace.
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There are certain directions the Afghan situation may go from this point:
If the prisoner swap starts on 31 March and goes more or less satisfactorily, this can salvage the US-Taliban deal and that would lead to the withdrawal of the American and other foreign troops and start of the national reconciliation.
If the USA gets fed up with the whole bickering, it would be a different ball game. If the USA gets bogged down in the Covid-19 crisis – the number of infected people in the USA has already exceeded that of China, making it the topmost country infected by the virus, and the American troops in Afghanistan are a sitting target for Covid-19 – this would tempt the USA to leave Afghanistan in a hurry.
It is no secret that the Ghani administration would collapse without the American support. It is also evident that the Taliban and the Abdullah coalition are capable of finding some kind of common language, and together they can carry with them the entire population of Afghanistan.
In the absence of foreign backing, the Ghani administration cannot last for very long against the Taliban.
The threat of withdrawal of funds by the American side – one billion this year and another one billion next year – is very potent. An administration mired in corruption cannot survive when the financial lifeline is choked no matter how brave the noises anyone makes.
The Ghani administration is still trying to play around. They nominated a delegation for negotiations with the Taliban even though they knew that the Taliban would reject it because it was not fully representative of the Afghan society. The nomination was announced on 27 March 2020, and the Taliban promptly rejected it on 28 March 2020.
The Taliban are quite sure that in any coalition government that replaces the Ghani administration they would be a dominant partner. They call it Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and it would likely be a somewhat softer version of their previous period in power.
For peace in Afghanistan, the Ghani administration would need to embrace the ground realities even if it means their departure from the corridors of power.
For Americans, the Afghanistan situation is an unnecessary headache when nearly 60% of the world is in lockdown because of Covid-19.
There are still hopes but for now it is a macabre dance around peace in Afghanistan. /// nCa, 30 March 2020