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Peace talks turning into a tool for politics or another chance for Pakistan

By Ahmad Shah Katawazai-U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, is once again in Pakistan, trying to convince Islamabad for halting its support to the insurgent group. Khalilzad trip begins after Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan has received a letter from the U.S. president Donald Trump, asking Pakistan’s help in Afghan peace talks. Trump’s request and Khalilzad’s visit follows a tirade of criticism and complains that Pakistan is not helping with addressing the insurgency problems in South Asia.

“….We no longer pay Pakistan the $Billions because they would take our money and do nothing for us, Bin Laden being a prime example, Afghanistan being another. They were just one of many countries that take from the United States without giving anything in return. That’s ENDING!” Trump tweeted on November 19.

Pakistan has been the center of terrorism and insurgency from decades. The main hurdle in peace negotiations is the State of Pakistan, which harbors and has provided safe havens to the Taliban insurgents. Pakistan has influence over the Taliban and has been using insurgency as its foreign policy tool. Pakistan’s policy of supporting terrorism in the region remains unchanged.

Pakistan considers the insurgents as a strategic asset for the war against India in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Because of the announcement of withdrawal of troops by the previous administration in the U.S. both Pakistan and Taliban believed that ultimately the U.S. will withdraw, thus paving the way for their coming back to power. Winning the war will be difficult as long Pakistan provides the insurgents with safe havens and support. Similarly, Iran prefers to see U.S. bogged down in Afghan conflict as Tehran feels that it is encircled by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran has been supplying weapons to the Taliban insurgent while Russia has also established ties with Taliban insurgents. This adds further to the complexity of the war in Afghanistan.

Russia is also flexing its muscles for more regional influence. Moscow has put up a parallel approach for the peace talks. Last month Moscow hosted a peace conference where the Taliban representatives also participated along with some other countries. What does this mean for Afghanistan, is the fact that parallel approach may create more rifts and fragmentation instead of addressing the problem.

Khalilzad will travel to Afghanistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belgium, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar during his tour that will last till Dec. 20. The US envoy will meet Afghan government officials and stakeholders to work on Afghan peace process. Khalilzad has an ambitious goal of brokering the peace deal by April 2019 before the Presidential elections.

Another challenge for Khalilzad is how to ease internal tensions that include those who have been in fight with the Taliban from its inception in the 1990s. The northern alliance and some warlords are opposed of any peace deal with the Taliban. After Khalilzad first visit to Kabul, reports surfaced that the Afghan leadership felt blindsided and expressed their concerns regarding the ongoing talks with the Taliban, where the Afghan government was not kept in the loop.

The U.S. wants to put an end to the 17 year’s war. In his letter to Imran Khan, Trump has stated that his most important regional priority was achieving a negotiated settlement of the Afghan war.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis also said on Monday that “We are looking for every responsible nation to support peace in the subcontinent and across this war in Afghanistan,” Mattis said he has no doubts of the importance of keeping those troops in the region.

One of the American objectives since 2001 has been that Afghanistan no longer was a platform for terrorists to conduct strikes on the U.S. Among others the major reason for the U.S. presence is to strike back on the regional terrorist groups.

Afghanistan matters to the U.S. because, if America withdrew forces from Afghanistan, groups such as the Islamic State and Haqqani network would quickly find a platform and a new territory for their global caliphate, threatening U.S. interests in the region.“If we leave, with 20-odd of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world centered in that region, we know what will happen,” Mattis said. “Our intelligence is very specific. We will be under attack.”

There is a stark difference between the U.S. objectives and Taliban demands. Taliban key demands is that all foreign troops must leave Afghanistan. Taliban still seems in no hurry. Their calculus is that the public support will vanish in western countries for the war and ultimately the U.S. and NATO countries will withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, where they can come back. They have been waiting out for 17 years and meanwhile waging a very effective guerrilla warfare.

Last week, when President Ghani laid out his road map to peace at a conference in Geneva. Taliban dismissed Ghani’s government rendering it as a “powerless” foreign puppet and any discussion with its officials as a “waste of time.” Rather the Taliban insistence is to negotiate directly with the United States.

Taliban have been successful in securing a strong political position and a new stature in the International platform. With their official office in Qatar they have been traveling around to countries like Russia, China, and Pakistan etc. Moreover, they have earned the recognition of new allies.

Given the current obstacles and ambiguity with the upcoming presidential election in April 2019, it is unlikely that, at least in the short term the peace settlement will happen between the Afghan government and Taliban.

Instead of carving out a haste and short-term ceasefire, there should be a long term and permanent solution to the problem. So far, the Afghan government has been in passive mode and has allowed others to determine the peace process. In order to have a long term and stable solution, Afghan government should step up for direct representation taking its own national interest in consideration. If the leadership keeps the current flow, neighbor countries particularly Pakistan once again might deceive the U.S. with appeasing the situation for a short term and leaving the region in a mess in the long run.

Mr. Ahmad Shah Katawazai is the member of the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan and former Diplomat Afghan Embassy Washington D.C. Mr. Katawazai has a master degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University and a master in International Legal Studies from American University. Katawazai is a freelance writer. You can follow him on twitter @askatawazai

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