<a href="http://www.mepc.org/articles-commentary/middle-east-focus">Middle East In Focus</a>
Upon taking office, Afghani president Ashraf Ghani promised that he would pursue a diplomatic solution to the ongoing security situation in the country by engaging directly with the Taliban. The events of the last few days have shown that Mr. Ghani has every intention of following through on his promise. However, to do so he will need continued support of Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan. It seems that the strategy is beginning to bear fruit, as demonstrated by a message by Taliban’s elusive leader Mullah Omar, who indicated his support for the current peace talks between the central government and the Taliban. The message was criticized by some hardline elements within the Taliban, however, underscoring the difficult background against which the talks are taking place.
Commenting on Mullah Omar’s Eid message, the Pakistani daily The Nation highlighted in particular the importance the message had for the legitimacy of the peace talks: “The purported Mullah Omar message can iron out … divisions. While Mullah Omar’s endorsement may propel the talks forward and make the Taliban cooperative, it is sad that a wanted-man’s blessing was needed to legitimize the process....The Taliban consider it necessary to try to make inroads into the establishment before ISIS makes them completely irrelevant. ISIS may not have many members in Afghanistan right now but they are like a wildfire. If this is true, it is time for Pakistan and Afghanistan to extract the maximum concessions from the Taliban.”
That message appears to have been endorsed by Afghani president Ashraf Ghani who, according to a Pakistan Observer report, sees them as the only way forward: “Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said negotiations with the Taliban are the only way out to put an end to the on-going bloodshed in his country. In his first Eidul Fitr message to the nation on Friday, the Afghan president claimed, ‘Negotiations with the Taliban are the only way to end the bloodshed and bring peace to the country.’...Meanwhile, the Afghan president also expressed his gratitude to Supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, for endorsing the peace talks and termed them ‘an important development’ in the political process.”
The trouble is that a lack of cohesion within the ranks of the Taliban has muddled the picture to say the least. Dawn’s (Pakistan) Moeed Yusuf believes the current fissures among the various factions within the Taliban and the increasing role of ISIS-affiliated groups could undermine the confidence in the talks: “Nuances and specifics are debatable but the fact that the Taliban movement has seen growing discord between those willing to talk versus those who find this unnecessary is undeniable. Early signs of this were evident courtesy the — now known and documented — internal disagreements within the senior leadership and a number of field commanders on the Taliban’s strategy during the Afghan presidential elections last year....Pakistan’s missing clout over those willing to stay the course in the battlefield was demonstrated by its inability to force any rethink on their decision to launch the spring offensive in Afghanistan despite having promised Ghani results. These Taliban have challenged the conventional wisdom that the movement as a whole is tired of fighting.”
In fact, as this article by the Outlook Afghanistan staff points out, Mr. Ghani’s determination to go forward with the talks is admirable precisely because they come in spite of the ongoing spring offensive orchestrated by the Taliban forces: “President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday praised security forces for their stubborn resistance to Taliban attacks in the Janikhel and Chamkani districts of southeastern Paktia province and thanked local residents for their cooperation with the forces....Happy over no major incident of violence taking place in the central capital Kabul and provinces during Eid holidays, the president said he supported the continuation of peace talks with the Taliban.”
There is a hope, however, that a peaceful solution might be within reach, which is why The National’s (UAE) Shaukat Qadir urges Mr. Ghani to act ‘boldly and with conviction’: “Finally, peace has a genuine chance. The first round of talks ended on a note of cautious optimism and with plans to meet again at a mutually agreed date sometime after Eid....The core problem is becoming increasingly obvious. As the Afghan Taliban splinter, they pose less of a threat, which puts Mullah Omar in a weaker negotiating position vis-a-vis the Afghan government. This, in turn, contributes to a rise in the number of dissident Taliban and the move by hardliners to join ISIL....But ISIL’s rise is not the only threat to Afghanistan’s stability. There are others who remain locked in a battle for political power and, in the process, seeking to ensure that Mr Ghani, his government and his initiatives fail.... [T]o succeed, Mr Ghani must demonstrate the boldness and courage of conviction with which he started. Or else he must return to the Karzai doctrine of governance.”
Others, like S.M. Hali, who writes for the Daily Mail News (India), urge caution against unrealistic expectations and the need for greater cooperation and accommodation among all the parties involved: “It is important to note that a firm beginning has been made but it will be unrealistic to expect miracles at an early stage. Fourteen years of hostilities and conflict cannot be washed away in a few ‘monsoons.’ Ashraf Ghani’s resolve to pursue the peace process diligently and patiently must be appreciated....The onus now lies on Afghan leadership and Taliban to pursue their collective desire to bring peace to Afghanistan and the region, and agreed to continue talks to create an environment conducive to the peace and reconciliation process. Both sides will need to be flexible and accommodating because at the end of the day, it is their country, which is at stake. The impending threat from the Islamic State or Daesh prevailing in the region is looming large and disgruntled Taliban joining the Daesh is a reality. To meet the onslaught of this new peril, all stakeholders need to get their act together and build mutual trust and stand united for peace wholeheartedly.”
The developments in Afghanistan have important implications for balance of power in the region, which is why the Indian daily Hindustan Times has urged its government to become more engaged in the peace talks: “Since Ashraf Ghani was made president, Pakistan has had reason to be optimistic. Mr Ghani has shown a desire to end the present civil war at almost any price, including kowtowing to Islamabad....India is rightly wary of a peace process so strongly tainted by Pakistan’s influence. But it is important to realize that India, so long as it is unable to provide Kabul weapons or sufficient money, will have little say in Afghanistan. This, despite a recognition that events in Afghanistan are a key determinant of Pakistani behavior towards India. Crudely, the more Islamabad is bogged down on its northwest the less problem it can cause to its southeast. Which is why India should be more involved in the whole process than it is at present.”
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