Developments in Afghanistan

Peace and reconciliation moves

Russia hosted a meeting on Afghanistan in Moscow on November 9 to which it had invited representatives of the Taliban, Afghanistan, US, India, Iran, China, Pakistan and the five Central Asian Republics. Initially scheduled to be held in September, the meeting was postponed because of Kabul’s insistence on an Afghan-led peace process. Afghanistan was represented by members of the High Peace Council and the US by a diplomat from its Embassy in Moscow. India sent two senior retired diplomats to the meeting calling its participation as “non-official”, while emphasizing that peace efforts should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled. Speaking at the meeting, Foreign Minister Lavrov said that Russia stood for preserving undivided Afghanistan, in which all ethnic groups could live side by side. He added that Russia saw its role, together with Afghanistan’s regional partners and friends, who had gathered around the table, to assist in facilitating the start of a constructive intra-Afghan dialogue. In a communique, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the participants “agreed to continue consultations within the framework of this mechanism.” Media reports quoted the Taliban and the representatives of the Afghan High Peace Council as saying that the meeting ended without an agreement on a path to direct dialogue between them. Sher Mohammed Stanikzai, the Taliban spokesperson said that they did not recognize the current Kabul government as legal and would not hold talks with it. He added that in view of their main demand of withdrawal of foreign forces, they would discuss a peaceful resolution with the Americans. The HPC representatives said that Kabul was ready for direct talks with the Taliban.

The Taliban were reported to have held three days of talks with the US envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar during the month. Media reports indicated that the Taliban were represented by Khairullah Khairkhwa, the former Governor of Herat and Mohammed Fazl, a former military chief. They pressed for postponement of next year’s presidential election and constitution of an interim government under a neutral leadership. They rejected a proposal for ceasefire made by Khalilzad. There was no agreement on release of prisoners, opening the Taliban office or lifting a Taliban travel ban. Speaking in Kabul on November 18, Khalilzad expressed the hope that the Taliban and the Afghan government would strike peace deal before the presidential election. He added, “The Taliban are saying that they don’t believe that they can succeed militarily….I think there is an opportunity for reconciliation and peace.” The Taliban, however, said that there was no agreement on any deadline for a peace deal. Speaking of the US peace efforts, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah struck a cautious note, saying that the Taliban had not shown the intention to get seriously engaged in the peace negotiations. This was in contrast to President Ghani’s statement earlier in the month that it was not if but when an agreement would be reached with the Taliban. Abdullah Abdullah underlined the need to hold the Presidential election in time regardless of the result of peace efforts. 

Geneva Conference

Government of Afghanistan and the UN held a conference on Afghanistan in Geneva on November 27 and 28. According to a communique of UNAMA, its goal was to show the solidarity of the international community with the Afghan people in their efforts for peace and prosperity; and for the Afghan government to renew its commitment to development and reform. It took place between two pledging conferences, the Brussels conference of 2016 and the next one expected to be held in 2020. Speaking at the Conferences, President Ghani said that his government wanted a peace agreement in which the Afghan Taliban would be included “in a democratic and inclusive society”. He added that any deal must fulfil certain conditions, including respecting the constitutional rights of women. He underlined that the Presidential election in the spring was key to successful peace negotiations. The Afghan people needed an elected government to obtain ratification and implement the peace agreement. Implementation, he said, would take a minimum of five years to reintegrate six million refugees and internally displaced people. He announced the formation of a twelve member team to negotiate peace with the Taliban. The US representative urged the Taliban to commit to a ceasefire and appoint their own negotiating team and called for the Presidential election to be managed better than the parliamentary election. Russia expressed its concern at the worsening military and political situation and called for a broad intra-Afghan dialogue. In a communique issued at its conclusion, the conference reaffirmed its commitment to “an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, as articulated at the Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation in February 2018 as a main forum and vehicle and endorsed at the Tashkent conference.” Further to the conference in Brussels in 2016, the international community reaffirmed its intention to provide $15.2 billion for Afghanistan’s development priorities up to 2020 and direct “continuing but gradually declining” financial support to Afghanistan’s social and economic development throughout the Transformation Decade, as the government continues to deliver on its commitments under the mutual accountability framework.  

Violent incidents continue

Afghanistan continued to be rocked by incidents of terror and violence. A Taliban attack on a Ghazni checkpoint in the beginning of the month killed at least 13 soldiers and policemen. Similar attacks in Khawaja Ghar district and Kunduz killed 14 and 7 soldiers respectively. Later in the month, dozens of people were killed in a powerful suicide bomb blast targeted at a large gathering of religious figures in Kabul. A number of soldiers were killed and wounded in a separate terror attack on a mosque inside an army base in the Khost province. The month ended with ten dead in a terror attack on a security compound in Kabul.

In its quarterly report presented to the US Congress at the beginning of November, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) stated that the Afghan government’s control and influence of districts was at its lowest level (55.5%) since SIGAR started tracking the situation in 2015. The report further stated that the Afghan forces “made minimal or no progress in pressuring the Taliban over the quarter” and “failed to gain greater control or influence over districts, population and territory this quarter.” It noted that the insurgent control of districts had also decreased and contested districts under neither the government nor insurgent control had increased. Casualties among the Afghan forces during the quarter were described as “the greatest it has ever been during like periods.”

Elections

The office of President Ashraf Ghani announced at the beginning of the month that he would be seeking re-election as President next year. A report in the Wall Street Journal in mid-November claimed that the US was considering pushing for postponement of next year’s Presidential election in a move that could be linked to Khalilzad’s apparent six month deadline to broker peace with the Taliban. Reacting to the report, leaders of Hizb-e-Islami, Jamiat-e-Islami Party of Afghanistan and the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan opposed any delay in conducting the election. Rejecting the above report, a spokesman of President Ghani said that the government was committed to holding the Presidential election as per the Afghan constitution and the date determined by the Independent Election Commission. He added, “Continuity in a democratic process is a must and any other proposal than the will of the Afghans which is outlined in our constitution is simply not acceptable.”
By the end of November, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) had announced the results of the parliamentary elections held the previous month only in respect of 13 provinces with the least number of seats. Results of bigger provinces, including Kabul, were yet to be announced. A spokesman of the IEC said, “We are currently working to finalize the process of recounting and assessing the votes cast in other provinces”, but did not give a date for announcement of complete results. 

Chabahar Port exempted from sanctions

A State Department spokesman announced that it had been decided to exempt the port project in Chabahar being build with Indian investment from sanctions against Iran in recognition of its importance to landlocked Afghanistan. President Donald Trump’s “South Asian strategy underscores our ongoing support of Afghanistan’s economic growth and development as well as our close partnership with India,” the spokesman said on November 6. The exemption would cover development of the Chabahar port along with an attached railway project and Iranian petroleum shipments to Afghanistan. The spokesman further stated, “This exception relates to reconstruction assistance and economic development for Afghanistan. These activities are vital for the ongoing support of Afghanistan’s growth and humanitarian relief.”

 

December 20, 2018

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About the Author

Mr. Sharat Sabharwal joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1975. After serving in various positions in the Permanent Mission of India to the UN in Geneva and the Indian Missions in Madagascar, France and Mauritius, he was Director/Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi from 1990 to 1995. The positions held by him subsequently have been Deputy High Commissioner of India in Pakistan (1995-99), Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the UN in Geneva (1999-2002), Ambassador of India to Uzbekistan (2002-2005) and Additional Secretary/Special Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs (September 2005-March 2009).

Mr. Sabharwal was High Commissioner of India to Pakistan from April 2009 to June 2013.

He was appointed Central Information Commissioner in November, 2013 and served in this position till September, 2017.
Mr. Sabharwal has been Deputy leader/member of the Indian delegations to the UN General Assembly, the erstwhile UN Commission on Human Rights, International Labour Conference and World Health Assembly. He was also the Deputy Leader of the Indian delegation to the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent held in Geneva in October 1999 and member of the Indian delegation to the World Conference against Racism, held in Durban in September 2001.

Mr. Sabharwal holds a post graduate degree in Political Science. He speaks English and French besides Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi.

Mr. Sabharwal has been an author at the Indian Express, The Hindu, India Today, The Tribune and The Wire.