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    A Critical Stage
    With U.S.-Taliban talks scuttled, more challenges lie ahead for the Afghan peace process
    By Li Qingyan  ·  2019-09-20  ·   Source: NO.39 SEPTEMBER 26, 2019

    An ambulance arrives at the site of an explosion in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, on September 17 (XINHUA)

    Soon after coming to power in 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his new strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia, hoping to change the passive U.S. status in Afghanistan. In a sketchily outlined plan at the White House, he said the new strategy would shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions on the ground. Also, all instruments of U.S. power, diplomatic, economic and military, would be concentrated to ensure a successful outcome.

    "Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen," he said.

    The necessity for a new strategy arose after the U.S. remained mired in the violence in Afghanistan with no signs of change. The situation kept deteriorating with the Taliban military group stepping up its attacks on military and civilian targets and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) extremists, driven out of Iraq, increasingly infiltrating the war-torn country.

    U.S. military spending in Afghanistan rocketed, finally driving Trump to consider reconciliation talks. A peace agreement would end the longest war the U.S. has been engaged in and slash the military expenditure of Afghanistan.

    To reach this objective, Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, was appointed special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation. Khalilzad talked with Taliban representatives and shuttled among Russia, China, India and other regional countries to win their support for the talks. This seeming shift in the U.S. strategy offered a historic opportunity for reinstating peace and stability in Afghanistan.

    Progress in talks

    After several rounds of talks, the U.S.-Taliban negotiations gradually focused on four topics: a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, a guarantee by the Taliban that it would stop terrorist activities, a comprehensive ceasefire and internal dialogue within Afghanistan.

    Negotiations between the Afghan Government and the Taliban are a critical part of the peace process where the state system, constitutional reform and distribution of power, including arms reorganization, will have to be negotiated. It is likely to be a long journey full of twists and turns.

    The Taliban has insisted it will not hold talks with the Afghan Government in the first stage. So the U.S.-Taliban negotiations became mainly related to troop withdrawal timetable and the Taliban severing its links with extremist armed groups including Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

    According to a Taliban spokesperson, the U.S. agreed to withdraw all troops in 15 to 24 months, in exchange for the Taliban agreeing that the territory of Afghanistan would not be used to attack the U.S. and its allies.

    The U.S. announced that it would withdraw 5,400 soldiers in the first stage, reducing the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan to 8,600, and shut down five military bases. The tacit understanding was that if the Taliban failed to keep its word and Afghanistan once again became the base of threats and attacks against the U.S. and its allies, the troop withdrawal would be postponed or even reversed.

    There are opposing voices inside the Trump administration on a complete troop withdrawal. Some high-level officials have warned that a hasty withdrawal might push Afghanistan back into a civil war and jeopardize U.S. interests. Conservatives have been pressing Trump to halt the talks and refuse to sign a peace agreement.

    During a media interview, Trump stressed that the U.S. would however maintain a strong intelligence force in Afghanistan.

    Currently, the Afghan Government is unable to resist Taliban attacks on its own and the U.S. continues to assist it through a phased withdrawal of troops. With the U.S. military force in Afghanistan reduced, Washington is seeking to influence the future situation in Afghanistan by political, economic and diplomatic means. The strategic importance of Afghanistan, the heart of Asia, has not lessened for the U.S. Only, it aims to do the influencing in a more economical way.

    However, after eight rounds of talks, this month, Trump announced he was pulling out, following an attack by the Taliban in the Afghan capital Kabul that killed 12 people. Consequently, Trump's announced plan to pull out all U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan by the 2020 presidential election will be a severe test. So now the process to end 18 years of violence in Afghanistan is going to be even more challenging.

    For its part, the Taliban militants have been pressing for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops first to improve their image at home and make them appear as national heroes who fought foreign invasion.

    But while the talks were on, both sides tried to ratchet up their leverage. Both increased their offensives with the U.S. ordering more air strikes and the Taliban stepping up random attacks. The game continued both on the ground and at the negotiation table.

    Election complexities

    Afghanistan will hold its presidential election on September 28. Earlier scheduled for April, it was delayed repeatedly as the government waited for the result of the negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban.

    Afghan society has become more fragmented and it is difficult to reach common ground on the peace process. The political parties have been busy with the election and neglected the peace and reconciliation process.

    The anti-Taliban forces give priority to the election. The alliance that came to power after the Taliban's rule was overthrown by the U.S. refuses to share power with the Taliban and fears the military group will restore an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan if it were to come to power again.

    In addition, President Ashraf Ghani's rivals are questioning the legitimacy of his administration, asking him to hand over power to an interim government so that the elections are free and fair. But Ghani has rejected the idea of an interim government run by different stakeholders including the Taliban.

    All this has made the issue more complicated. Since troop withdrawal, an anti-terrorism guarantee, a complete ceasefire and internal dialogue are interrelated, the U.S., Taliban and Afghan Government have to come together to reach a package of solutions to change the current situation in Afghanistan.

    Other actors

    Besides these challenges, the situations in other regional countries and their divergent interests will also influence the Afghan peace process.

    Conflicts between Afghanistan's neighbors India and Pakistan have recently intensified over Kashmir. Both countries are of strategic importance to Afghanistan and the bilateral tension could affect peace negotiations.

    Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey also want a role in the reconciliation in Afghanistan, but they are competing with one another and cannot create a combined force. Russia has stolen a march over them by promoting internal dialogue in Afghanistan. It has hosted dialogue in Moscow between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, and become a force in the peace process.

    As an important neighbor of Afghanistan, China supports and has participated in the reconciliation process. China supports an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process for maintaining regional security and stability in the neighborhood. During the third round of China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Foreign Ministers' Dialogue on September 7, China proposed an orderly and responsible troop withdrawal for a steady transition in Afghanistan.

    With Afghanistan at a critical point in its peace process, it requires the joint efforts of all related parties to ensure the desired result.

    The author is an associate researcher with the China Institute of International Studies

    Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

    Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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