Recently, Afghanistan saw two positive developments amid a rise in violence, claiming human life indiscriminately: one, a power-sharing deal between President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah; two, the Taliban's offer of ‘amnesty’ to its 'opponents'.
Although these two developments are no guarantee for bringing peace in the war-torn country, they indicate that the major political entities see it better to sink differences, ignore antagonism and seek peace and stability in Afghanistan.
It was a tough task for Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran diplomat, to broker peace in Afghanistan on the part of the United States. The diplomat’s efforts were impeded by a divided Afghan government reluctant to negotiate with the Taliban emboldened by the deal of February 29 with Washington in Doha, Qatar.
As president Trump looks firm to pull his troops out of Afghanistan whether the Doha deal succeeds or not, Mr. Khalilzad was prompted to warn the Afghan government that it had better act while the American and NATO troops are present in the country.
The warning appears to have gone right as Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, after their long feud over power sharing, have agreed to form government. As per the agreement, Mr. Ghani will remain the president while Mr. Abdullah will lead peace negotiations with the Taliban insurgents even if the talks do not seem to happen soon in view of the intensification in attacks in Afghanistan; a slow pace in the release of the prisoners-held by each side- have stalled negotiations .
In the recent major attacks, a maternity hospital in Kabul was targeted, killing mothers and their newborn babies. And in another attack, Afghan intelligence officials were killed. The rising attacks prompted present Ashraf Ghani to ask his forces to operate in an offensive mode. Mr. Khalilzad disagreed with the government’s claim that the Taliban was responsible for the attacks.
That, notwithstanding, the growing attacks do not allow the intra-Afghan negotiations to begin. Yet, the US envoy holds that pursuing negotiations with the Taliban is the way forward; more so when the fighters have often stated that they do not want the country to become another Syria.
Meanwhile the Ghani-Abdullah deal -promising inclusive and efficient administration has been welcomed by the US with the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterating that the 'priority for the United States remained a political settlement to end the conflict and welcomed the commitment by the two leaders to act immediately in support of prompt entry in intra-Afghan negotiations'.
Interestingly, the Taliban ‘general amnesty’ offer to its opponents has come at a time when uncertainty is clouding the peace prospects in Afghanistan. Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader has urged everyone to take full advantage of the amnesty by ending their opposition and not become an impediment for the establishment of an Islamic government and that every male and female member of society should be given their due rights. This statement, underscoring the sense of empowerment the Taliban feel, shows that the insurgents seek to end the conflict and make a good start in Afghanistan, antagonizing no section of Afghans.
Meanwhile, the Afghan parties need to address a number of key internal issues like a ceasefire and the formation of a new government and political system. The Taliban wish to form an Islamic government while the Kabul government is a democratically elected one which the insurgents regard as a puppet regime imposed by Washington.
Given the internal differences and diverse agendas of various local players, a conflict on the kind of government is likely to arise. Thus, a collapse of the negotiations is a possibility, pushing the country back to square one.
Options left include a temporary coalition government with the Taliban on board; a loya Jirga (grand assembly) of Afghans can be called to form an interim government which would conduct polls after the US-troop pullout and the Taliban's return to the Afghan mainstream.
A conference-including all Afghan parties, major powers and the neighboring countries- in Kabul like the one in Bonn, Germany in 2001 is a better option to decide on a future course of action for the country.
Given a decades-long conflict which has seen many thousand deaths - including civilians, government forces and insurgents on all sides - peace talks are unlikely to begin on a positive note. However, past experience of talks should ease the beginning. Two rounds of intra-Afghan talks were held in Moscow in 2019 with Afghan politicians, ex-president Hamid Karzai, former commanders and civil society members , women included, and the Taliban representatives on board to discuss an end to the long war. The third meeting took place in Doha, Qatar; several Afghan government officials in their personal capacity were present.
But there are concerns among many Afghans that the Taliban could revive their interpretation of Islamic justice. They fear that some freedoms could be gone. In 1990s, the Taliban rule banned women from public life and punished the violators severely.
Further, from the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, there is a long list of broken agreements and failed attempts aimed at ending the war in the country. If the talks again fail, the Taliban are likely to capture the Afghan state as they did in 1996.
And if their government fails to satisfy Afghans, a spike in conflict and instability in the country- located in a region of powerful states like China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Iran- is certain to take place. So peace will be the first causality again.