Developments in Afghanistan

Peace and Reconciliation efforts 

The US Special Representative, Zalmay Khalilzad continued his hectic diplomacy in the region. Following the December meeting between him and the Taliban at Abu Dhabi,  in which the representatives of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan had also participated, it was expected that the next one would be held in Saudi Arabia in January. However, it did not take place. A subsequent proposal to hold the meeting in Pakistan also did not materialize. The Taliban reportedly wished to focus only on withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and accused the Americans of trying to expand the agenda. They were also not willing to meet the representatives of the Afghan government. Some media reports suggested that Pakistan was exerting pressure on the Taliban to adopt a more flexible approach. Hafiz Mohibullah, a senior military commander, who has been involved in the talks with the US was arrested in Peshawar and subsequently released and raids were conducted by the Pakistani authorities on the houses of some other Taliban. Finally, the talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban commenced on January 21 in Qatar, even as in a show of force, the Taliban attacked the training school of the National Directorate for Security in Maidan Wardak province, killing a large number of persons. Initially slated for two days, the talks continued for six days. At the end of the talks, Khalilzad told New York Times, “We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out  before it becomes an agreement” and added that the Taliban had committed to the satisfaction of the Americans “to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.” There was, however, no sign that the Taliban had agreed to the other US demands of a ceasefire before the withdrawal of US forces or dialogue with the Afghan government to discuss a power sharing arrangement and arrive at a political settlement. It was reported that the Taliban wanted withdrawal of foreign forces before committing to a ceasefire. Taliban sources told Reuters that the US had agreed to withdraw foreign troops within 18 months of the conclusion of an agreement, but the US officials said that a timeline was not discussed. The Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid said that there was progress in talks revolving around the withdrawal of foreign forces and talks on unresolved matters would resume in future meetings. He added that the Taliban position was clear that progress on other issues was impossible until the issue of withdrawal of foreign forces was agreed upon. Khalilzad on his part stated that meetings had been more productive than they had been in the past and “we made significant progress on vital issues”. He added that talks would be resumed shortly. A number of issues were yet to be worked out and “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and “everything” must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire.” President Trump tweeted that the Afghan talks were proceeding well. Reuters quoted a Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying that  both the parties had tentatively agreed to reconvene on February 25.

In a significant development, the Taliban appointed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as the head of their Political Office in Qatar. The appointment of Baradar, who co-founded the Taliban with Mullah Omar, would lend weight to the Afghan delegation at the talks. He replaces Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai. 

In a statement issued after the meeting of Khalilzad with President Ashraf Ghani to brief him on the talks in Qatar, the Presidential palace maintained that Khalilzad had told the President that the US had insisted that the only solution for lasting peace in Afghanistan was intra-Afghan talks, no agreement had been reached on withdrawal of foreign troops and any such decision would be coordinated and discussed with the Afghan government. In a subsequent address to the nation, President Ghani assured people that their rights would not be compromised in the name of peace and the country’s sovereignty would be upheld. He said that the Taliban had two choices: to stand with the people of Afghanistan or be used as a tool by other countries. About foreign troops, he stated that no country wants such forces indefinitely, but Afghanistan needed them for the moment. Ghani also insisted that the Taliban engage with Kabul. However, sceptics were of the view that in the event of an understanding between the US and the Taliban, the Kabul government may be left with very little influence in the matter.  

The above account clearly brings out the large gap that remains between the two sides on issues such as a ceasefire, the Taliban insistence on withdrawal of foreign forces before progress on any other issue, their reluctance to engage with the Afghan government and uncertainty concerning their willingness to live with a power sharing arrangement. An Associated Press report quoted the Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen as saying that they were not seeking a “monopoly on power”, but were looking to live along with their countrymen “in an inclusive Afghan world.” Their past record would, however, warrant a radical change in their attitude to validate the above words. The ongoing process could, therefore, face serious hurdles as it moves forward. 

Afghan media reported concerns amongst people regarding the protection of their rights that have accrued to them under the Afghan constitution. Concern was also caused in Kabul by the reports of the deal between the US and the Taliban involving the setting up of an interim government, which were reinforced by the peace plan included in a document circulated by the RAND Corporation that envisages, inter alia, adoption of a new constitution with an 18 months transitional period and a transitional government to be led by a rotating chairman. Addressing the Raisina Dilogue in New Delhi, former President Hamid Karzai stated that the Americans were not going to leave Afghanistan and were discussing military bases with the Taliban. He added that what was needed was not a deal between the US and Pakistan on Afghanistan, but a peace process in which Pakistan plays an important role along with the other countries. 

Russia publicly expressed its dissatisfaction with the ongoing peace moves of the US. Reacting to the postponement of the Presidential election, a Russian Foreign Ministry statement attributed the move to the influence of the US, which needs additional time to prepare for holding the voting “in accordance with its patterns and building a peace process in Afghanistan according to its own scenario.” The statement added that the US was also looking to create, in the context of the planned reduction of its military contingent in Afghanistan, some Afghan ‘counter-terrorist units’, which will not be controlled by Kabul but will operate in the interests of the US special services. Russia’s envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov visited Pakistan soon after the Qatar talks to get a briefing on the latest developments. A Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, while welcoming the US resolve to launch a peace process in Afghanistan, noted that Khalilzad’s attempts to convince the Taliban to engage with an official delegation from Kabul had failed despite the pressure exerted on the Taliban by the Americans, several Gulf States and Pakistan. The spokesperson added that it was clearly premature to talk about the results of the “US unilateral effort” to launch the peace process in Afghanistan, “which reaffirms the need to find a collective solution that would take into account the interests of all the neighbouring countries and main partners of Afghanistan.” It was further stated that the Moscow format is optimal for consultations on Afghanistan and during the last meeting of the format, the participants had achieved greater success than the US alone. Media reports at the end of the month revealed that a meeting of the Taliban and some politicians opposed to President Ghani would be held in Moscow in February.  A US official described it as an attempt to muddle the US-backed peace process. The Afghan Foreign Ministry stated that the holding of such meetings would not help the peace efforts and the Afghan government would not attend it. The statement expressed the hope that Russia like other countries would recognize Afghanistan’s role as leader and owner of the peace process. The meeting in Moscow is being organized by the “Council of the Afghan Diaspora in Russia.” Besides former President Karzai, it is likely to be attended by Mohammad Mohaqiq, Mohammad Ismail Khan and Atta Mohammad Noor.

Candidates for the Presidential Election

The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan has announced that 18 potential candidates have successfully completed the requirements of nomination of the Presidential election due in July this year and have been officially registered. Following the review of their documents, the preliminary list of the Presidential candidates would be published. The 18 candidates include: Zalmai Rasool, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Gulbadeen Hikmatyar, Ahmad Wali Masoud, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. However, the reports of a possible US-Taliban deal involving the setting up of an interim government continued to cast a shadow over the holding of the Presidential election. 

Final results of Parliamentary election

By the end of January, the Independent Election Commission had declared the final results of the Parliamentary elections held in October last year only in respect of 18 of the 33 provinces that went to poll. A number of candidates have accused the Independent Election Commission and the Independent Electoral Complaint Commission of influencing the final results.

India and Afghanistan 

The Afghan NSA visited India at the beginning of January and held talks with his Indian counterpart. The Indian Army Chief, General Rawat said in the course of the army’s annual press conference that  if several countries were talking to the Taliban and if India had interests in Afghanistan, it could not “be out of the bandwagon.” A day earlier, while speaking at the Raisina Dialogue, he had supported talks with the Taliban so long as they did not come out with any preconditions and so long as they were looking at lasting peace in Afghanistan. Asked about the comments of the Army Chief, the Spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs stated that India’s position on Afghanistan has been very clear and consistent. India supports peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan through a process “which is inclusive towards achieving this goal and there has been no change in this position.” In a media briefing at the end of the month, the Spokesman stated that India supports efforts that can achieve an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan and in this context it is important that the Presidential election takes place as per schedule. He added that India continued to support an Afghan owned, Afghan led and Afghan controlled peace process and believed that for enduring peace in Afghanistan, the terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries needed to be eliminated. He further stated that India “will participate in all formats of talks which could bring about peace and security in that region.”

Addressing the India-Central Asia Dialogue in Samarkand, in which the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan also participated, External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj said that India was committed to the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan and to promote an inclusive Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled peace and reconciliation process. Speaking at the same conference, the Afghan Foreign Minister stated that his country could provide the most cost effective transit routes, serving as a hub for energy supplies from Central Asia to the energy markets of South Asia.  

 

February 11, 2019

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About the Author

Ambassador Sharat Sabharwal

Former Indian Ambassador to Pakistan and Uzbekistan and Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre

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.