A damp squib

THE much-touted international confe­rence on Afghanistan hosted by Uzbekistan has turned out to be a damp squib, yielding no breakthrough. In every practical sense, the 24-point Tashkent Declaration looks like a flight of fantasy.

In the build-up to the event, testy ex­­changes over support for the Taliban insurgency created bad blood between the US and Russia. The top American commander in Afghanistan accused Moscow of arming the Taliban. Gen John Nicholson chided Moscow for propping up the insurgency by supplying weapons to the Taliban. However, he offered little evidence in support of his claim.

The accusation also fuelled fury among the militants, who frequently assert their fighting prowess, independence and commitment to upholding Afghanistan’s sovereignty. That is why they cling to their demand for withdrawal of all foreign troops. Meanwhile, in an incensed response, the Russian embassy in Kabul said, “Once again, we insist such statements are absolutely baseless.”

The Taliban are not ready for direct talks with Kabul.

The atmosphere was highly charged by the time representatives from Russia, the US, Britain, China, India, Pakistan, the European Union, Turkey and the five Central Asian states arrived in Tashkent. A conspicuous no-show was the UN secretary general.

Issued at the end of the conference was a banal declaration calling for peace talks without preconditions, a political settlement, close regional counterterrorism and counter-narcotics cooperation and economic connectivity. The emphasis on respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is welcome, but some countries in attendance are brashly meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Posing as friends and mentors of the Afghans, they are in effect no better than tormentors. They have been trying for years to influence Kabul’s foreign policy and decisions on key issues, including negotiations with the armed opposition.

Peace and security in Afghanistan are undoubtedly central to regional prosperity. But what is more essential is to put an end to a conflict which is universally seen as unwinnable, as well as to the suffering of the Afghans. Rhetorical flourishes and high-sounding ideas are aplenty at such meetings, where brand new international and regional initiatives are unveiled to promote Afghan reconciliation. These grand plans have never been translated into concrete action.

The Central Asian states have lately launched efforts to advance peace and socioeconomic development in Afghanistan. Seeking a greater say on regional issues, they cannot easily achieve their objectives, much less challenge the geostrategic ambitions of Washington and Moscow. In the given circumstances, a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and their inclusion in the government as a legitimate political entity appears to be the best way of tamping down the ongoing violence in the country.

Sustained parleys are an absolute imperative to ensure the renunciation of violence by the Taliban and convince them to sever ties with Al Qaeda and other transnational terrorist networks. Simultaneously, the largest Afghan insurgent outfit is required to show courage in embracing peace — a long journey that should begin with a positive response to President Ashraf Ghani’s unprecedented offer.

Unfortunately, however, some elements within the national unity government, as well as hawks in the Trump administration, are implacably averse to the offer. In recent years, we have seen many false starts in Doha, Oslo, Moscow, Beijing and Murree. A number of regional and global formats came into being, but all these efforts fell by the wayside due to calculated US manoeuvres to keep the pot boiling in Afghanistan.

Almost for a week now, senior guerrilla leaders have been weighing the pros and cons of the proposal on the table. Their political bureau in Doha is reportedly prodding insurgent commanders to lend their weight to Ghani’s proposal. With all sides talking about talks, key stakeholders are confronted with an agonising dilemma: the Taliban are not yet ready for direct negotiations with Kabul, and Washington remains reluctant to launch face-to-face exploratory meetings with the insurgents.

Now is the time to turn the page in Afghanistan, whose leader is acutely aware of the fact that making peace needs more courage than fighting. Dialogue, engagement, compromise and reconciliation are goals that cannot be achieved without a strong political will.

Often characterised as conjoined twins, Pakistan would be well advised to play a proactive role in stabilising Afghanistan. Afghan and Pakistani religious scholars are to attend a trilateral conference in Indonesia. The three Muslim nations can nudge the Taliban to the negotiating table. The rebel group’s rejection of the invitation from Jakarta — engaged in a sort of Islamic diplomacy — to attend the meeting is bad news.

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