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The Afghan Conundrum~I

The peace process revived only after Trump announced a drastic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and sought the new Prime Minister Imran Khan‘s help in December 2018 to jumpstart the talks, but now Taliban has refused to talk directly to the Ghani administration. The tedious talks are now being held at Doha, Qatar, between the Taliban led by Mullah Ghani Barader and the US, led by Mr Zalmay Khalilzad.

Govind Bhattacharjee | New Delhi |

Afghanistan continues to oscillate between hope and despair. No sooner the prospect of peace appears to be tantalisingly close, it swings to the other extreme of despondency. Peace talks are actually progressing with the Taliban at a snail’s pace in Qatar. “Hope blossoms in spring as Afghans keep close eye on peace talks”, Al-Jazeera reported on 9 April from the eastern province of Kunar where spring signals fresh fighting.

The next day, more than 20,000 fled their homes after violence between ISIS and the Taliban escalated. Two days later, Taliban announced its “spring offensive” amidst the Qatar peace talks, vowing to eradicate “Occupation” through its Operation ‘Fath’ meaning victory. On 20 April, suicide bombers attacked the Afghan Communications Ministry in downtown Kabul, killing two civilians. Two days back, talks had broken after the scheduled meeting between the 250-strong delegation of Afghan politicians and civil society members and Taliban officials in Doha was abruptly cancelled amid arguments over the size and status of the group, which included some government officials attending in a personal capacity.

This provoked Mr Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghan reconciliation, express his frustration. In 2015, at the behest of the then Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan had hosted the first-ever direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives in Pakistan’s tourist resort of Murree which was also attended by representatives of the United States and China. But before the next round was to start, it was reported that Mullah Omar was dead, and talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government were called off.

Actually Mulla Omar had died years ago, as was later realised, and the news was leaked by vested interests perhaps to scuttle the peace process. When Mullah Mansur, the new Taliban chief, was killed in a drone strike in Balochistan, the peace process came to a grinding halt. The peace process revived only after Trump announced a drastic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and sought the new Prime Minister Imran Khan’s help in December 2018 to jumpstart the talks, but now Taliban has refused to talk directly to the Ghani administration.

The tedious talks are now being held at Doha, Qatar, between the Taliban led by Mullah Ghani Barader and the US, led by Mr Zalmay Khalilzad. Reports of the two sides being close to an agreement are being intercepted by signs of deadlock and talks seem to be heading nowhere in particular. Meanwhile, violence and suicide attacks continue to bleed the hapless Afghans, from which there has been no respite during the last 17 years since the US invaded Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.

In March, the two sides agreed on two key issues ~ withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and Taliban’s pledge to cut ties with Al Qaida and other terrorist outfits, but deadlock remained in respect of two other crucial issues, specifically dialogue among Afghan groups, and a comprehensive ceasefire to end the decades-long bloodshed in the country. Even as the two sides were coming to a partial agreement, on the same day of 12th March, 20 Afghan soldiers were killed, 10 wounded and another 20 captured by the Taliban in Badghis province in western Afghanistan, indicating the tenuousness of the peace process.

The latest breakdown points to the inherent contradictions in the process, highlighting once again the Taliban’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Ghani government and to talk to a team set up by it. Even Afghan political opposition is aware of this problem, and some of them are engaging with the Taliban directly.

The problem is that the opposition does not have any common strategy either, and the success of the peace talks now heavily rests upon Mr. Khalilzad whose frustration is understandable. For Afghanistan, peace has always been elusive, but the current problems have their roots in colonial times, like most of the problems in the subcontinent.

Existence of the Afghan state spread over some 652000 square kms. of area is conditioned by the 600 km long Hindukush mountainous massif that runs across the country from north-east to south-west, with its famous Khyber Pass located on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan on the east. For centuries since ancient times, Afghanistan has been a natural corridor for conquerors and traders alike. Alexander invaded India through its Khyber Pass, and Babar also came through it to establish the Mughal dynasty. It was the arena of the Great Game of asserting supremacy and control between the British and the Russian empires in Central Asia during the 19th century, but as none was able to conquer Afghanistan, they agreed on leaving it as a buffer between their respective empires. Ever since, it has served as a buffer and a corridor, but today it is much more than that ~ a crossroad of many routes in Asia, a natural geographical buffer between the Iranian plateau, the Central Asian Steppes, and the Indian subcontinent.

Hindukush has been at the heart of Afghan life, and also defines the intractable nature of its problems. Geographically, it divides the country and hinders transport and communication between its provinces, especially during the harsh winters. As Robert Kaplan points in The Revenge of Geography, about 65 per cent of its population lives within only 35 miles of the main road system, which aligns roughly with its medieval caravan routes which was a part of the ancient Silk Road emanating from China and extending up to Central Asia.

Eighty of Afghanistan’s 342 districts cover these routes and are key to centralized control. Many civilisations coalesced in Afghanistan which is at the centre of the three major geopolitical regions. It is bordered on the east by Pakistan whose population is composed of 90 per cent Sunnis. In the west lies Iran with its Shia population and the Arabian Peninsula with its Sunni population. The Central Asian plains on the north are crisscrossed by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers where Orthodox Christians coexist with the main religion, Islam. But apart from geography, there are many more cleavages that run through the Afghan society, and, there are the relics left by the colonial rulers that continue to haunt the entire subcontinent till date, with no resolution in sight.

To understand the genesis of problems in Afghanistan, it is important to understand its demography. Forty-two per cent of Afghanistan’s population are Pashtuns; they are concentrated mostly to the south of Hindukush. 27 per cent are Tajiks, they live mostly to the north of Hindukush bordering Tajikistan. About 9 per cent are Uzbeks, they also live in the north in areas surrounding Mazar-e-Sharif bordering Uzbekistan. Hazaras constituting about 9 per cent of the population are concentrated mostly in the mountainous region of Hazarajat in central Afghanistan, whereas smaller groups like Turkmens and Balochs live in areas respectively bordering Turkmenistan and the Balochistan province of Pakistan.

It is also important to understand the internal dynamics of Pakistan, a country marked by wide disparity. Punjab with 51 per cent of population and 23 per cent of the area is the most prosperous of its four provinces which accounts for 57 per cent of Pakistan’s GDP, while Balochistan has only 3 per cent of Pakistan population, but 40 per cent of area and most of Pakistan’s mineral resources and natural gas, yet it contributes only 3 per cent to the country’s GDP.

This creates a wide developmental divide that continues to stoke the fire of instability and insurgency in this border province against the Pakistani state. The history of Afghanistan is a long one and can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Many empires have risen and fallen in the course of history since then, including the Achaemenids, the Bactrians, the Kushans, the Saffarids, the Samanids, the Ghaznavids, the Ghurids, the Timurids, and lastly the Durranis, of which the founder, Ahmad Shah Durrani is regarded as the founder of the modern state of Afghanistan in 1747.

Durrani, himself a Pashtun, succeeded in uniting various warring Afghan tribes and extended his empire from Khorasan in the west to Kashmir the east, and from the Amu Darya in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south; he also defeated the Marathas in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761, inflicting heavy losses upon them and this halted their ascendancy in India.

(To be concluded)

(The writer is a commentator. Opinions are personal)