Developments in Afghanistan

Peace and Reconciliation Moves

In a sign of divisions within Afghanistan, a number of Afghan leaders, including former President Karzai participated in a Russia-engineered meeting in Moscow with the Taliban in early February, which was organized by the “Council of the Afghan Diaspora in Russia” and was dubbed as political drama by the Afghan foreign ministry. It would be recalled that the Taliban have strongly resisted the American demand for a dialogue with the Afghan government. The joint declaration issued after the Moscow meeting was full of generalities and pious wishes. The participants agreed to meet again in Qatar “as soon as possible”.

In his State of the Union address in early February, President trump stated that the US troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan would be returning home soon. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he said. Speaking of Afghanistan, he added that the hour had come to at least try for peace  and he expected more troop reductions in the near future. In a separate statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the US CENTCOM commander said that the US military strategy for South Asia included assuring Pakistan that its “equities” would be acknowledged and addressed in any future agreement in Afghanistan.

In mid-February, President Ashraf Ghani announced the decision to convene a grand consultative jirga to discuss the nature of peace talks with the Taliban and the post-peace government in Afghanistan. Some media reports suggested that a loya jirga (grand assembly) could potentially provide a forum for the representatives of the Taliban, who have refused to engage with the Afghan government, to enter into a dialogue with the wider Afghan society. Opposition politicians, however, remained sceptical about the idea. In a decree issued in March, President Ghani ordered the convening of the consultative loya jirga on peace on April 29. Almost 2000 delegates are expected to participate. The peace jirga idea seems to be an attempt by President Ghani, who has seemed increasingly marginalized by the talks between the US and the Taliban, to stay relevant to the process and garner wider support for himself. It is, however, not clear how such an unwieldy assembly could suggest a way forward on the tricky issues involved in the peace and reconciliation talks.

The US special representative, Zalmay Khalilzad resumed his talks with the Taliban in Qatar on February 25 with a working lunch with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban, who had been released recently from a prolonged detention by the Pakistanis at the American request. At the end of the talks, which spanned nearly two weeks, Khalilzad said that the two sides had made progress on the issues of counter-terrorism assurances and troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. He added that “when the agreement in draft about a withdrawal timeline and effective counter-terrorism measures is finalized, the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government, will begin intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire.” He further stated that the conditions for peace had improved and “it is clear all sides want to end the war. Despite ups and downs, we kept things on track and made real strides.” In their statement, the Taliban stated that progress was achieved, but emphasized that no cease-fire deal had been reached, nor an agreement on their talking to the Afghan government. The Taliban further stated that both sides would deliberate over the achieved progress and prepare for a further meeting, the date for which would be decided subsequently. Media reports quoted an unnamed Taliban official as saying that the main sticking point remained the timeframe for withdrawal of foreign forces. According to him, the Taliban want a timeframe of three to five months, while the US wants it to be eighteen months to two years. It was also reported that while agreeing to give an assurance not to let Afghanistan serve again as a refuge for militants, the Taliban were not willing to name any specific groups in this regard. A spokesman of the Afghan President said that Ashraf Ghani hoped to see a long term ceasefire agreement and the start of direct talks between the government and the Taliban soon. A spokesman of the US State Department stated that the Taliban had agreed that peace will require both sides to fully address four core issues: counterterrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue and a comprehensive cease fire. Even as the talks were continuing, the Taliban kept up pressure on Afghan forces. The day the talks ended, they killed 20 Afghan soldiers and captured another 20 in western Afghanistan.

It would be seen from the above that the emphasis of the statements made by both Khalilzad and the State Department was on intra-Afghan dialogue and not specifically on talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Though Khalilzad mentioned the Afghan government, he spoke of “the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government” commencing intra-Afghan negotiations. On a visit to the US in March, Ashraf Ghani’s National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib publicly criticized Khalilzad for keeping the “duly elected” Afghan government in the dark about the peace talks. “We don’t know what’s going on. We don’t have the kind of transparency that we should have,” he added. Subsequent media reports suggested that the US state Department conveyed to President Ghani that they would not deal with his NSA. However, Khalilzad arrived in Kabul on March 31 as part of his tour of the region. According to the US state Department, he would consult with the Afghan government and other Afghans about the status of US talks with the Taliban, encourage efforts to form an inclusive negotiating team and discuss next steps in intra-Afghan discussions and negotiations.

Disquieting SIGAR report on Afghanistan

In a report issued in March, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has stated that a potential US-Taliban peace deal “will likely” fail to prevent Afghanistan from coping with terrorists and descending into a “narco-state”. The report casts doubts whether or not the Taliban and Afghanistan as a whole will ever end their involvement in the opium trade, which serves as a major source of funding for them. It further states that in 2017, the poppy crop generated approximately $1.4 billion for Afghan farmers and billions more for refiners and traffickers, amounting to the equivalent of 20 to 32 % of the country’s GDP. A peace agreement is unlikely to change that dynamic, it concluded. According to the report, a failure to successfully reintegrate Taliban fighters and their families into the Afghan society and to improve civil policing and ensure effective oversight of continuing foreign financial assistance could each undermine the sustainability of any peace agreement that might be reached.

Presidential election postponed further

The Afghan Presidential election, which was originally scheduled for April this year, but had been postponed to July, was pushed further to September (September 28) as the authorities try to solve problems of the voting process. President Ghani appointed new members of the Independent Election Commission and the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission as well as heads of the secretariats of the two bodies. The Commissioners were selected from amongst the 81 candidates for whom the seventeen Presidential candidates voted at the Presidential palace on March 1.

War of words between Afghanistan and Pakistan

In a tweet on February 7, President Ashraf Ghani expressed the Afghan government’s serious concerns about the violence perpetrated against peaceful protestors and civil rights activists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan. He said that it was the moral responsibility of every government to support civil activities that take a stand against the terrorism and extremism that plagues and threatens the region and collective security. The tweet appears to have been provoked by the death of a Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) leader during a sit in organized by the PTM. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi responded with a tweet, rejecting that of President Ghani’s. “Such irresponsible statements are only gross interference. Afghan leadership needs to focus on long-standing serious grievances of the Afghan people,” he added. Pak media reports quoted a senior official as saying that Pakistan had conveyed to Afghanistan a clear message that such an approach would not be accepted by any means and would have a negative impact on the ongoing Afghan peace talks.

According to Pak media reports, during an interaction with journalists, Prime Minister Imran Khan suggested an interim set up in Afghanistan as a possible solution to an apparent impasse in the peace process. He was reported as saying that the peace process could succeed only if there was a neutral interim government, which could hold free and transparent elections. He also stated that he had cancelled a scheduled meeting with the Taliban leadership due to objections raised by the Afghan government. Afghanistan recalled its Ambassador for consultations following Imran Khan’s above remarks. The Afghan Foreign Ministry described the  remarks as “reckless” and an obvious “example of Pakistan’s interventional policy and disrespect to the national sovereignty and determination of the people of Afghanistan.”  Khalilzad described the remarks as “inappropriate.” The US Ambassador to Afghanistan asked Imran Khan not to “ball-tamper” with Afghan affairs! The Pak Foreign Office stated that the Prime Minister’s comments were reported out of context. He was referring to Pakistan’s model where elections are held under an interim government. They added that the comments should not be misinterpreted to imply interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Following the above clarification, the Afghan Foreign Ministry said that their Ambassador would return to Pakistan.

Afghanistan begins exports to India through the Chabahar Port

In the end of February, Afghanistan sent a consignment of  57 tonnes of dry fruits, textiles, carpets and mineral products from its western city of Zaranj to Iran’s Chabahar Port for shipment to Mumbai. At the inauguration of the new export route, President Ashraf Ghani said that Afghanistan was slowly improving its exports in a bid to reduce its trade deficit. “Chabahar port is the result of healthy cooperation between India, Iran and Afghanistan; this will ensure economic growth,” he added.


April 8, 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.