Afghanistan – nothing is agreed until everything is agreed

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So many peace initiatives in Afghanistan have come and gone over the years that a concretised cynicism has come to overlay the process. Jaded observers and commentators pick over the wreckage of the latest debacle, the latest failure, and return to their desks to await the next ramshackle three-wheeled peace vehicle.

The polarities are fixed, the players eternally fractious and third and fourth parties play their own agendas which may have little to do with peace or security in Afghanistan. Yet even in Afghanistan nothing, including war, is forever, and there may, just may, be reality and substance attached to the latest developments.

Persuading the diverse players to stay on the same page long enough to advance the writing of the script is no mean feat, and it is the product of teamwork as much of the activity of a single player, though Zalmay Khalilzad does appear to be the right person in the right place at the right time to exercise the brokerage that holds an emerging deal together, a wheel at each corner.

Most importantly all sides have to agree that there is something in it for them and that whatever anybody else might think the Taliban are going to talk and fight, fight and talk right down to the wire, and that they have a right to a place at the table. Hard as that may seem, it is a truth.

All sides want different things, and it is not until all sides see commonalities in the negotiating basket that add up to at least some of their needs that the ingredients coalesce. Although little remarked there does appear to be a weariness with war both in and out of Afghanistan. The conflicting ideologies that underpin warfare are themselves wearied – and changing.

The Americans under Trump would dearly love to wash their hands of the entire messy business though not all in his administration would agree that a total withdrawal is the best of ideas. Coalition partners of a decade or more ago now find themselves divergent, their own national imperatives refocused. Hitherto implacable groups and governments are making the concessions that add up to wiggle-room – and then there is Pakistan.

Foreign Minister Qureshi has now hailed the negotiations between the US and the Taliban  ‘a major diplomatic victory’ – for Pakistan that is, and he is partially but not wholly right. Of necessity much of what is playing out is behind the arras, hidden from view because all sides need the privacy of a closed door to be able to say the unsayable and think the unthinkable in the company of one another; and we cannot know precisely what Pakistan has contributed. The leverage that we had with the Taliban is not what it was but it is still there and deployed sotto-voce.

Care has to be taken to ensure that we are not making a rod for our own back in that whatever deal may be crafted for Afghanistan there is no erosion of the gains that have been made in pushing extremist groups and fighters out of the nation. Pakistan remains vulnerable to attack from the Khorasan franchise of Islamic State, also known as Da’ish, and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan may be weakened but they are not broken.

Both have fastnesses deep in Afghanistan, beyond the reach of the Kabul government. Peace for Afghanistan has to mean peace for Pakistan as well, and an agreement that the Taliban, Afghan corporate franchise, is not going to harbor designs on the Pakistan state as has been the case in the past.

As Khalilzad has said nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That agreement may not be as distant or unrealistic as it has been of yore, and the formation of committees to address outstanding issues is both new and positive. Pakistan has much to gain from a peace in Afghanistan, not least the repair of a decidedly battered image.