AS the May 1 deadline for the pullout of American troops from Afghanistan under the US-Taliban Doha agreement nears, there has been a flurry of shuttle diplomacy involving American officials making calls in major capitals of this region.

On Monday, Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington’s point man on Afghanistan, was in Islamabad and met the army chief as well as the prime minister’s special assistant on national security. “Matters of mutual interest, regional security and ongoing Afghanistan reconciliation process were discussed,” said the military’s media wing. Earlier, Mr Khalilzad had visited Kabul and Doha, while also discussing the Afghan file with India.

Clearly, the Biden administration wants some sort of framework to be in place in Afghanistan — the ‘moonshot’ as it is being referred to — before it pulls its troops out, hence the shuttle diplomacy. The US secretary of state has also written a letter to the Afghan president calling for a political settlement, and warning that the Taliban “could make rapid territorial gains” after his country’s troops leave Afghan soil.

However, as efforts are underway on the diplomatic and political fronts to reach a lasting peace agreement in Afghanistan, on the military front things do not look good. There has been a noticeable uptick in violence, with the Shia Hazara community as well as female media workers targeted in deadly attacks last week.

The Hazaras were brutally murdered in Nangarhar province, while the media workers were also targeted in the same region. The latter attack was claimed by the local affiliate of the self-styled Islamic State group. This, unfortunately is Afghanistan’s dichotomy: it has been unable to govern itself for the past few decades, and is dependent on foreign forces to provide security, while at the other end, despite the presence of foreign troops, there has been no let-up in violence, with even more virulent actors — such as the local IS ‘chapter’ — spreading their tentacles.

The fact is that no foreign-dictated peace can succeed in pacifying Afghanistan, and there are strong chances that bedlam will ensue as soon as the last foreign solider leaves the country. Unless of course the various Afghan stakeholders decide that there has been enough violence, and it is time to bring peace to their battered land. Hackneyed as it may sound, only an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process can succeed, and in this regard the onus is on the Taliban to respond to peace overtures from the government in Kabul.

Regional states, including Pakistan, should play the role of facilitators, but decisions must be taken by the various Afghan stakeholders themselves. If foreign troops stay, the Taliban will continue to fight, and if they leave without a peace agreement in place, the brutal civil war will only intensify. Which is why the sooner the Afghans — particularly the government and the Taliban — reach a workable peace deal, the better.

Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2021

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