Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has displayed striking statesmanship amidst a continued crisis caused by the Taliban’s intransigence. Many are baffled by the olive branch that he has held out to the Taliban, a volte-face, after persistently accusing them of many atrocities. His comprehensive peace proposal is an acknowledgement that he is willing to talk without preconditions in an effort to restore peace. This seems to be no admission of defeat, but also is an index of the realisation in the government policymakers that you cannot ignore the Taliban.
Ghani’s package envisages release of some Taliban prisoners as well as a review of the country’s Constitution. It is a reasonable proposal, one that takes into account the hard realities of the ground situation. It follows the recent Kabul Process, a security conference in which 20 countries participated.
Any optimism, however, that Ghani’s gesture will bring peace swiftly to Afghanistan is misplaced. Apart from the fact that the Taliban has been cold to the latest peace initiative– though not rejecting it outright– the expectation of a positive outcome overlooks the utter failure of the bipartisan exercise in Pakistan, in 2015, between the Afghan government and the ever bellicose Taliban. The latter seems inclined to talk to the US leaders rather than Ghani.
Nothing that has happened since 2015 raises the hope that the situation can still be salvaged. On the contrary, in the past two years, there has been a perceptible deterioration of relations, flowing mainly from unremitting violence unleashed by the Taliban. Barring a miracle, Ghani’s endeavor to buy peace could, therefore, prove futile. Converting a ruthless foe which understands only the language of the gun requires nothing less than divine intervention.
Skepticism over Afghanistan’s future stems from a multitude of factors. First, is the continued Taliban propensity for mindless violence. Three incidents in January account for more than 100 casualties. One of them– the attack on an ambulance– more than confirms that the Afghan government is battling an outfit that is inhuman. It endorses the expert belief that any ideology that the Taliban flaunts is just a veneer to hoodwink the rest of the world and earn a modicum of respectability, which they otherwise lack. There is an underlying crudity and recklessness that gives the group a fearsome fang. The destruction of precious Buddhist Bamyan monuments in central Afghanistan, way back in 2001, cannot be forgotten. The ensuing years have not diluted the group’s natural penchant for terror and misconduct in civil matters.
There is a consensus among observers, both at home and abroad, that the Taliban can never win the war against the state. The latter has massive resources, especially in the form of the American military and its Western allies. US President Donald Trump has gone back on his pre-election resolve that he will slowly pull out of Afghanistan. He continues to pour manpower and other resources into a conflict that increasingly resembles Vietnam. The costs for the US are enormous and are growing by the month. This does not seem to deter the White House, which possibly believes that the stakes in a geopolitically surcharged region such as Afghanistan are too high for even entertaining a thought of withdrawal.
The US and its allies are encouraged by the general consensus that the Taliban cannot expand its influence nor can it pull down a constitutionally elected government. The Taliban reach does not extend to the heavily fortified Kabul. It is confined to the rural areas. The group has several other limitations as well.
There is an increasing popular resentment of the Taliban forays into hapless communities that are under extreme economic stress. They resent the hardship caused to them by the mindless violence directed against them. The Taliban appeal to religious sentiment has also ceased to enchant many sections of Afghans, who have other major day-to-day concerns of livelihood, especially the uninterrupted education of their children. The message conveyed by Malala Yousafzai, a victim of the Pakistan Taliban, is not lost on the average Afghan citizens who desperately seek peace and the well-being of their children.
Taliban’s close link with the Pashtun ethnic group and its undeniable receipt of help from Pakistan are two other factors that have caused its alienation. Corruption charges flowing from its involvement in the narcotics trade have damaged its image further.
Ghani’s principal worry now is to raise the professional standards of his armed forces and the police. These two organs do not measure up to the challenge posed by a determined Taliban. They are riddled with problems of poor training, lack of motivation and corruption. International assistance has alleviated the situation marginally. They have, however, a long way to go.
There is likely to be a prolonged stalemate in the country. Such paralysis in a nation does not provide the space required for further peace efforts by international groups. Pakistan may continue to offer material assistance to the Taliban to keep the pressure on the present Afghan government and to curb the growing interests of other nations.
Dr Raghavan is a former CBI Director and an observer of international security issues. The views expressed here are personal. The print.