N. P. Upadhyaya; Kathmandu:

Scene 1 in Afghanistan: Shahzia, a 32 year old teacher and mother of four, said she wouldn’t let her 13 year old son go shopping for fear of kidnappers who demand ransoms between $ 50 to $ 50, 000.

Scene 2 in Afghanistan: Ahmad Zia, a 38 year old shopkeeper, used to stay open till mid-night. Not anymore. He said he doesn’t stay out after 8 PM. As for peace Zia wasn’t optimistic. “I haven’t seen peace or a peaceful day in my life. I don’t know really about the future of this country, but I am so disappointed”, he said.

Scene 3 in Afghanistan: Torak Farhadi, a former Afghan government advisor, said the government and the Taliban are “two warring minorities”, with the Afghan people caught in between –“one says they represent the republic, the other says we want to end foreign occupation and corruption. But the war is (only) about power”.

Scene 4 in Afghanistan: Mohammed Sharif, a 38 year old employee at the Higher Education Ministry says he hopes the two sides can reach some result “because Afghans can no longer deal with all these many problems”. (Source: Kathy Gannon, AP News. January 5, 2021).

The above mentioned chaotic scenes though appear differing in nature but in essence talk of the continuing pains that the poor and the war torn Afghanis have been subjected to since decades and decades.

The pain still seems to have no end though talks to restore peace has begun.

The known and the declared regional “spoilers” are also ready to damage the peace prospects in Afghanistan.

The regional anti-peace elements have frightened the entire South Asian region. Guess who is the regional villain? Keep on guessing.

The Afghani pain in effect dates back to the days when the then Soviet forces stormed Kabul and since then, the population inside Afghanistan have had to face uninterrupted violence, killings, bombings, kidnappings and et al and even as of now the situation appear distant for prevalence of peace.

Sporadic violence and killings in and around Kabul continue even if the peace process in Doha is in progress though at a slow speed.

This is the tragedy of the Afghani people which have been expressed so lucidly by school teacher Shahzia, shopkeeper Ahmad Zia, Torak Farhadi and Education ministry official Mohhamed Sharif who have almost candid in expressing their inner pains in their own way and all the panicked Afghanis long definitely for peace that is still elusive.

International forces are inside Afghanistan since decades and decades. Their presence too has added to the problems of the common Afghani population.

After a three weeks break, the talks between the Afghan government and the Talibans have once again resumed in the Qatari capital Doha on January 5, 2021.

A day ahead of the resumption of the stalled talks, the US special envoy on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad while in Kabul (January 5) said that he “hoped that both the sides will achieve tangible progress during this round of talks in Doha”.

Ambassador Khalilzad was in Pakistan, January 4, 2021, wherein he met with the Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and other competent officials and sought “Pakistan’s meaningful help as usual to get the Taliban into an agreement to reduce violence.

The US special envoy on Afghanistan is on record to have offered many a times in the past “loads of thanks with appreciation” to Pakistan on behalf of the United States, especially the important role that Prime Minister Imran Khan and General Bajwa and his team played in facilitating even the start of the Afghanistan Peace negotiations last year September 12 in Doha.

Perhaps it is these words of appreciation from Zalmay Khalilzad that may have encouraged President elect Joe Biden to ventilate his feelings towards Pakistan that he would surely need the Pakistani support in the institutionalization of permanent peace in Afghanistan.

Peace in Afghanistan is a must for Pakistan as the latter is the next door neighbor.

The ground reality is that Pakistan shares a nearly 2,600-kilometer traditionally porous border with Afghanistan.

Moreover, Pakistan since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan hosts even as of today about 3 million plus Afghan refugees who made their way to Pakistan in order to save their lives when the Soviet forces invaded Kabul long time ago.

This also speaks as to why Pakistan needs peace in Afghanistan.

If peace dawn in Afghanistan, the refugees will prefer to return to their original homeland.

Issuing a press statement January 7, the Pakistan’s foreign office has said that “the two teams have made significant progress by finalizing the rules and procedures last month and have now reconvened (in Doha) to negotiate on substantive issues, say international media sources.

The Foreign ministry further calls upon “both sides to remain constructively engaged and show flexibility in the negotiations for reaching an inclusive, broad-based and comprehensive political settlement which would lead to lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan”.

The US envoy Zalmay believes apparently that it is Pakistani side which can impress upon the Talibans to soften and exhibit flexibility in their stance at time of the talks.
Khalilzad left for Kabul from Islamabad and then flew to the talk venue-Doha.

He keeps on shuttling the capitals of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Qatar.

A fresh report received while writing this story, Friday, claims that the already slow-going talks in Doha has come to an abrupt halt till Saturday as one of the main negotiator from Taliban was missing from the talks venue, informs Kathy Gannon for the Associated press dated January 8. (The talks have resumed already).

According to Reuters, January 5, the negotiating teams in Qatar held a preparatory meeting wherein talks centered on a peacemaking agenda.

The Doha talks this time will mainly focus on a ceasefire and reduction in violence in Afghanistan.

Notably, the peace talks in Doha have begun or say has resumed just as the US forces are ready to commence another round of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan this January which is as per the agreement reached previously with the Islamist Taliban.

High placed sources who have been watching the peace talk in Doha carefully say that the negotiating teams from both the sides in Doha, the Afghani government and the Talibanis, appear somewhat worried in that even if they come to a tentative transaction on maintaining peace in Afghanistan, will the upcoming Joe Biden Administration endorse the deal reached at time of the outgoing Trump Administration?

This is surely a problem which may have haunted both the sides in the table.

But President elect Joe Biden is on record to have said during his election campaign that he will stand favoring a small intelligence based presence in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Prime Minister Khan too rejects a hasty troop’s withdrawal from Afghanistan which tentatively is similar to the views of upcoming President Joe Biden.

This he had said in an article published in the Washington Post last year June. Hasty return of foreign forces from Afghanistan, Khan believes, may encourage the known regional “spoilers” to exploit the vacuum.

But the Taliban leaders summarily have rejected the concept of the presence of foreign troops in the Afghani soil as preferred by the upcoming Joe Biden’s US administration.
This stance is likely to create some problems in the days ahead.

The Taliban after their ouster from power in 2001, have considerably grown in strength and thus will push their demand with adequate forte for a fair share in power if and when a peace formulae is stuck in between the Afghani government and the Talibanis.

Having said this, the fact is that both the negotiating parties for peace in Afghanistan believe that “a military victory is impossible for either side”.

And it is this belief on both the sides which brings them to the negotiating table.

Both sides want to gain as much as it could while being in the talking table.

Thus the peace talks hinges around the outline of power sharing between the conflicting parties.

While on the one hand the Afghani government is somewhat reluctant in sharing power then the Talibans, on the other too appear not to exhibit elasticity for the other side at the talks.
The Afghan government’s top agenda, as much as could be understood, is a cease fire.

The Talibans’ bottom line is power sharing with one more strings attached.

The Talibani rider is that “any rights (in the constitution) must be granted keeping in mind with the Islamic teachings”.

It means that the Taliban insists on Shariah Law to be enforced in Afghanistan but the government side rejects it for fear of “restrictions of freedoms” if it goes the Taliban way.

In the meanwhile, Amjad Ayub Mirza, an exiled activist from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir but influenced by the Indian establishment has raised doubts over the ongoing peace negotiations held in Doha between the Afghan government and Taliban.

This speaks of Indian infiltration aimed against peace in Afghanistan.

While the “spoilers” have on the one hand begun poking their nose on the Afghanistan peace process then on a January 8, 2021 dated news reveals that a senior US official has reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to a “long-term mutually-beneficial security partnership” with Pakistan after the two countries held strategic-level defense dialogue here the other day.

Pakistan-US strategic level defense dialogue was held on January 7.

This news must have puzzled the Indian establishment and its RAW wing.

According to Express Tribune, January 8, the US delegation was led by Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey and the Pakistani side was commanded by Lt Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza, the Chief of the General Staff.

The Islamabad based US Embassy in a press statement says that Helvey thanked Pakistan’s ongoing role in supporting Afghanistan peace negotiations.

The US press note also mentions that the two sides discussed the urgency of reducing violence and restarting meaningful negotiations between the Kabul government negotiators and the Taliban.

The meeting between the Pakistan military and acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey affirmed an urgent need for a reduction in violence in Afghanistan.
Helvey also told Pakistan’s Chief of the General Staff Lt.-Gen. Sahir Shamshad Mirza that Washington was committed “to a long-term, mutually beneficial security partnership with Pakistan” and wanted to strengthen cooperation on counterterrorism, the statement added.

It is widely believed that Pakistan wields significant influence over the Taliban and has been key in getting them to the negotiating table.

Islamabad has repeatedly called for a reduction in violence, but has also said the fighting must be reduced from the Afghan government side as well, informs Progressive FarnmerDTN dated January 9, 2021.

Very interestingly, the US-Pakistan talks on serious issues have taken place when the chaotic Trumpian days, sorry to say, of the US administration about to come to an end and President elect Joe Biden’s era in the White House is to begin well within a week or so.

The question could thus be asked “will Joe Biden stick to the serious agreements made by the previous administration or will prefer to bring in some changes in the agreements already signed?

This is puzzling but yet what could be expected that upcoming Biden’s Presidency would continue with the previous Afghan policy and pursue peace process in seeking an end to the two decades old turbulence in Afghanistan.

Peace in Afghanistan is a must for upcoming Joe Biden perhaps.

It should be noted here that even the Trump administration in the beginning remained tough towards Pakistan, however, as the Afghan peace process took several political turn and twists, the Trumpian team finally compromised with the Pakistan establishment.

Pakistan thus got certified as a regional power by the US.

The new US envoy to Islamabad William Todd made a statement last year stating that “Pakistan now has an even more important role in ending the Afghan war than it did in arranging a peace deal with the Taliban”.

Todd knew that peace in Afghanistan will remain elusive sans Pakistani support.

Ambassador Todd, who was nominated by President Donald Trump earlier last year, told his confirmation that Pakistan remained an “essential US partner in South Asia”, and Washington was seeking to reset its ties with Islamabad, wrote the Dawn/Diplomat dated September 24, 2020.

President elect now has to decide whether Pakistan will continue as an essential partner of the US in South Asia or not?

Will Biden go William Todd way or seek an alternative? Is the alternative available vis-à-vis Afghanistan peace process?

In a recent but very sad political development in Kabul, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani this week has ruled out an interim government with the Taliban, according to Afghan media reports.
Ghani also did not meet with Khalilzad during his visit to Kabul this week, claims the Progressive Farmer DTN.

President Ghani has been influenced by regional bully? Keep guessing.

And, in the meanwhile while writing this story a fresh news claims that the Talibani spokesman Mohammad Naeem has ruled out an immediate cease-fire even if the talks were in progress in Doha.

This once again demands the Pakistani effective “mediation” in the talks.

Analysts say that while the Afghan government prioritizes a cease-fire, the Taliban want to know what a post-war Afghanistan would look like, as well as a power-sharing arrangement.

Taliban is talking perhaps of the transition government in Afghanistan and its share in the interim government.

The two have differing aims and objectives which may complicate the talks in Doha.

South Asian IR experts opine that Pakistan eventually will continue to remain important for the US in terms of the Afghanistan peace process.

That’s all.
(Written on January 9, 2021).

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