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EDITORIAL: Now that the Afghan government has agreed to release 400 "hardcore" Taliban prisoners, on the advice of the Loya Jirga, the last obstacle in the way of direct Kabul-Taliban talks has been removed. The government of Pakistan, which facilitated the US outreach to the Taliban and also released important detainees over the last two years or so, has rightly welcomed the development and expressed the hope that "intra-Afghan negotiations will commence at the earliest" and this war would be behind us sooner rather than later. These 400 prisoners are going to be the last of the 5,000 to be released by the government as a goodwill gesture leading to power-sharing talks with the insurgents, but the matter of their release caused so much controversy because of the nature of their crimes and the outrage felt by human rights groups as well as families of the hundreds of thousands of people who died in attacks carried out by militants just like them. Plus, much of Ghani's government comprises the so-called new guard, which opposes any concessions to an enemy they hold responsible for all the carnage over the last two decades.

That is why the legitimate Afghan government was caught completely off guard when US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad went behind its back and opened direct negotiations with the Taliban a couple of years ago. The incumbent Pakistani government, then new to Islamabad, threw its weight behind the US initiative and sincerely believed that an accommodation with the Taliban was the only way for the US to get out of this long, ugly war. And remarks to that effect made by Prime Minister Imran Khan promptly drew anger from President Ghani in Kabul. But the Americans were desperate. President Trump needed a solid exit strategy in time to sell to the electorate ahead of the presidential election due in November. That explains why Washington was more than willing to literally dump its long standing ally in Kabul, and begin peace talks with the very entity it had spent billions over 20 years to prop the Afghan army to fight. And for all the anger, frustration and bitterness that Ghani and his friends felt watching from the sidelines in Kabul, it's not as if they could do much about it. They were able to hold their elections and head their government only because the Americans throw enough money into their system to make all that possible. And now that the Americans wanted to simply get out in the minimal possible time, and saw no way better of doing it than talking directly to the Taliban, then they would just have to play along.

Now, after much debate and even repeated breakdowns, the process seems doing full circle. Yet it is too soon to say that direct peace talks, which the Taliban have said can begin within 10 days, will deliver any quick results. The government holds Kabul, but it has clearly been losing ground and public sympathy for well over a decade now, and nobody can deny that the Taliban are now firmly in control of much of the country. At the heart of any solution must be the realisation that lasting peace is critical not just for the fragile Afghan economy, but also for the wellbeing of the country's ordinary people. Much of Afghanistan's young population can remember only war, in one form or another, going back as far as four decades. It has kept them from getting proper education, finding regular jobs and living decent lives. Then there is the prospect of the so-called Islamic State trying to sabotage whatever peace is incrementally won. And the longer the uncertainty about Afghanistan's future lasts, the more it will have chances to stage attacks and score points of its own.

The Americans would never have thought when they started this war that the day would come, almost 20 years later, when they would be desperate to get out of it to the point of listening to the Taliban after fighting them for so long. But now that everybody in the region and beyond has seen what this war has really accomplished, surely it is time to cut any further losses on all sides and wrap it up once and for all. The Pakistani government and security forces have done well to help the Afghans heal their wounds. After all, as an immediate neighbour Pakistan stands to be among the countries that gain the most from a prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan. Hopefully, that time is not too far away any longer.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020