War and words: On Afghanistan's slow progress toward peace and stability

Talks on Taliban’s terms will halt Afghanistan’s slow progress toward peace and stability

December 29, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:30 am IST

With the Afghan government and the Taliban preparing to resume talks in Doha next week , one of the pressing problems Afghanistan is facing remains unaddressed — the surging violence. The year 2020 was one of the bloodiest in Afghanistan’s 19-year-long conflict. It saw a U.S.-Taliban agreement in February where the Americans promised to withdraw troops in return for the insurgents’ assurance that they would not allow terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda to operate from Afghan soil. In September, the Afghan government and the Taliban began peace talks for the first time in Doha. But despite these diplomatic openings, both sides have continued their attacks. In the quarter that ended on September 30, violence surged by 50%, according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Afghanistan also saw increased targeted killings, especially of media professionals. On December 10, Malala Maiwand, a TV host, was shot dead along with her driver. In less than two weeks, Rahmatullah Nikzad, a freelance photographer, was killed in Ghazni. The Taliban have denied any role, but government officials say the insurgents, who banned TV and turned print and radio into propaganda platforms when in power in the late 1990s, were behind the attacks as they seek to silence critical voices.

The peace talks are a complicated process. The U.S. first cut a deal with the Taliban and then arm-twisted the government to join the talks. Abdullah Abdullah, who challenged the 2019 election results and formed a short-lived parallel government questioning the legitimacy and authority of President Ashraf Ghani, is heading the government delegation in the talks. Mr. Ghani’s Vice-President, Amrullah Saleh, the former intelligence chief, is known for his strong anti-Taliban views. Despite the divisions within, the government had demanded a ceasefire, but the Taliban resisted such demands and emphasised other talking points such as prisoner swaps and the future governance system. As a result, violence continued even as both sides negotiated ways to end the war. Earlier in December, after three months of talks, the Taliban and the government delegation agreed on a set of “rules and procedures” for the talks. But a ceasefire is still elusive. The Trump administration, in its quest to get out of the war, failed to extract any major compromise from the Taliban when it rolled out the peace process. The insurgents, who control most of the countryside, are already upbeat. The next American administration should carry out an honest review of the entire peace process and push the Taliban to make concessions. The talks are vital to finding a lasting solution to the conflict. But it should not be on the Taliban’s terms, which could erase whatever little progress Afghanistan has made since the fall of the Taliban.

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