By: Harriss Ali Akakhail
The momentousness of the ongoing talks between the U.S’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the political chief of Taliban’s Qatar office, Sheer Abbass Stanikzai, have signaled that an appreciable outcome in regards to a permanent peace settlement in Afghanistan is in the offing. Further validating the envisaged deduction, neighboring countries like Iran and Pakistan, who are always blamed by Kabul for engulfing fire inside her fringes, are in tandem and emanating positivity. However, the real impediment that has emerged in the peace process is the Kabul government.
Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, is struck by an inverse theory effect as he exerts his will at the cost of sabotaging the ongoing peace talks. Why would a man, who has publicly announced that he is ready to sacrifice his own life for the sake of peace in Afghanistan, commit to such wickedness?
Ashraf Ghani has branded himself well among the Afghan population. By successfully detaching Afghanistan’s economic dependence on Pakistan and increasing Afghanistan’s regional and economic connectivity to the world, Ghani has made substantial progress in the economic front and has generated massive revenues to run the major portion of the operations of his government independently. Furthermore, Ghani’s triumph in sidelining the powerful private militias, an untouched issue before his term, has also been received well by the Afghan population. However, the most powerful scoring point by Ghani was to empower a large segment of his population, i.e. Pushtoons, by pulling them back to the driving seat.
Such quantifiable realizations have transformed Ashraf Ghani into a larger-than-life figure for many Afghans; Ghani, too, holds similar views and expressed his belief that neither can anything be bypassed nor can anything be decided in Afghanistan without his wishes and approval. At a recent trip to Kunar province, Ghani stated that he is the only president of Afghanistan, since Ahmed Shah Abdali, who has reached the top through the wishes of the people, instead of cutting throats of his dear ones or through the support of a superpower. Such statements accompanied by his troublesome stance on the ongoing peace talks are depicting Ghani as a nationalist leader – the one whose stance is being openly refuted by the people.
The direct talks between the U.S and Taliban at Doha, have increased Ashraf Ghani’s apprehensions. The prospect of Washington bypassing his government, finalizing a peace settlement and walking away clean as a whistle while he is made to sacrifice at the cost of the deal reached, has soured relations between Afghanistan’s government and the U.S government to a point where Ghani’s aids are giving statements which are putting Kabul-Washington relations in real jeopardy. A recent example is of his national security advisor, Hamdollah Mohib, who criticized Zalmay Khalilzad on an official tour to Washington, stating that, “the perception in Afghanistan is that Zalmay Khalilzad wants to create a caretaker government, of which he will then become the viceroy”. Such statements not only exhibit Ashraf Ghani’s frustration but are also creating a huge void between the two allied partners and if this attitude prevails, it will soon bring the government at Kabul to a standstill, where all the hard-earned gains will erode.
For the Taliban, even the prospects of dialogue with Ashraf Ghani would be suicidal as the principle on which the Taliban continued their war for the past 18 years was based on the notion the government in Kabul is a puppet of Washington. Hence, the Taliban’s acceptance of Ghani’s government would not only undermine but also question their 18 years long war – a red line they would never cross. This baseline theme has been clearly conveyed to the Americans at the Doha talks and for such an impasse, a solution of a broad-based interim government that is inclusive of all Afghan factions is on the cards. Such a setup in Kabul, with ex-Taliban elements within its ranks, would make it easier for the continuation of dialogue with the Taliban and with the initiation of the second phase of talks or the intra-afghan talks.
Throughout his term, Ashraf Ghani has accused Pakistan of safeguarding Taliban sanctuaries, based on which he, at multiple times, has refused to talk on wide-ranging subjects pertaining to the two neighbors. On the other hand, the role that Pakistan has played to facilitate peace in the region is indeed on a higher moral trajectory than Kabul itself. Where Kabul has failed to appreciate the fact that Pakistan is not only highly supportive of the peace talks at Doha but is also making efforts for the movement of Taliban from Pakistan to Doha and the release of their top commanders who can play a gaudy role in pushing ahead the peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad has acknowledged such measures and the role played by Pakistan in the peace process
Ashraf Ghani has failed to realize that by getting on board with the ongoing peace process, he can gain a lot and can also practically implement the stalled Afghan Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS). The implementation of APAPPS can entirely change the course of interactions between Kabul and Islamabad by initiating a positive start where bilateral trade and people-to-people contact can play a major role in improving mutual ties. However, Ashraf Ghani’s mercurial stance over the ongoing peace process has sent mixed signals to Islamabad. Clearly, Islamabad is currently on a ‘wait and watch’ mode till it is evident whether Ashraf Ghani sustains or an interim setup takes place over him to talk to the Taliban in the intra-Afghan dialogue.
After taking readings from peace talks at Doha – Taliban guidance council, Kabul, and Islamabad – Ashraf Ghani needs to express maturity and realize that he has done his bid and now his time has come to an end. He must give space to “Loya Jirga” in order to decide the future course of action from here, which evidently would be to form an interim setup. However, if Ghani still holds back and does not let this happen, he will bait Kabul for fire and fury as this is the last real chance for peace to settle down. If this opportunity is forgone now, it would be lost forever. With the Taliban preparing for the summer offensives and initiating it by the first week of May 2019, the window of opportunity is narrowing down quickly. The longer it takes for Ashraf Ghani to come to this realization, the less fluid the peace process at Doha would be.