Optimism is contagious. So the opening of Doha peace talks provides a feel-good moment to the world. It is indeed “historic” that all sides to Afghan civil war – especially the Taliban and the Afghan government – are now sitting across the table and discussing a road-map for their country’s political future. It’s a breakthrough that’s been wanting for four decades. But it’s too early to tell the shape of things to come.
It’s an interesting political aggregate where all major parties to the conflict have something to gain and something to lose by sitting down, and yet they have been sticking to talk it out since 2018. It’s an uneasy formula that has so far worked in that the on-again, off-again peace talks continue to roll. Going forward, each side needs to feel they gained something for a power-sharing deal to work.
The US government is keen on progress, despite the fact that it suffers a loss of face as it withdraws its troops without cementing democracy in Afghanistan. On the other hand, a continued combat presence doesn’t justify the changing threat matrix. Hence, US diplomats are re-casting the narrative when they say this is an opportunity for the Afghans to take, to bring peace to their homeland “after four decades of war”.
As US leverage dwindles with each planeload of troops boarding for home, the Afghan government and civil society are in a delicate spot. They have no choice but to sit down and defend the political and cultural space that US-led mission’s presence has afforded them since 2001 invasion. But violence, which is particularly targeting civilians, is not abating, with death toll averaging 50 per day, as per NYT.
The Taliban are the ascendant party by all means, for their main demands have been met so far and their guns aren’t exactly silent on the battlefield. But they aren’t the sole rulers just yet. Learning from their last stint in power, they would prefer to have international legitimacy. So, it’s in their interest to work their way to Kabul through a brokered agreement. Besides, the façade of talks serves a useful purpose of convincing the world that hardliners are amenable to change.
This whole scenario is music to Islamabad and anathema to New Delhi. But the mirth shouldn’t lead to a continuation of a myopic regional policy. Merely keeping India out is not enough. Pakistan should be able to participate in the reconstruction of a peaceful Afghanistan and benefit economically from a friendly relationship. Direct economic linkages in the fields of agriculture, infrastructure development and social services can rekindle the old bonhomie.
Most of Afghanistan’s population lives below poverty line; and continued support of international donors is critical to keep up public finances. Even in peacetime, a future Afghan government will have a hard time governing. The leading lights gathered in Doha carry huge weight of expectations. Now the Afghans await a framework that spells out how exactly a power-sharing arrangement will work out amid multiple factions.