The Afghan peace talks are proceeding on multiple fronts. Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan is interacting with the Taliban in Qatar. In Moscow, the first intra-Afghan dialogue was held in which the Taliban discussed prospects of peace with influential members of the Afghan community headed by their ex-President Hamid Karzai.
Those who participated were anti the present President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani. The Afghan delegation comprised influential members of multiple ethnic groups within Afghanistan. In addition, there were also members of the erstwhile Mujahideen. These groups alongside the Mujahideen had initially fought the Russian invasion and subsequently the Taliban in a civil war as part of the Northern Alliance. The Americans had employed their support to overthrow the Taliban.
Pak announced that the Taliban would engage with the US special representative in the next round of talks in Islamabad on 18 Feb. This was, as per the Taliban, based on the ‘formal invitation of the Government of Pak’. Subsequently, they would continue talks in Doha from 25 Feb. It was also announced that the Taliban would meet with Imran Khan for ‘comprehensive discussions’ on bilateral affairs with Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership was also expected to meet the Saudi Crown Prince during his visit to Pak.
While it is the Taliban which remains the main opponent of the US and the Afghan army, however they do not represent the complete Afghan nation. The Taliban comprise mainly of the Pashtun clan and are 42 percent of the population, other groups being the Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbek, Aimaks, Baluch etc.
During its rule, the Taliban were accused by the United Nations of systematically targeting other ethnic groups by denying them emergency food supplies. In the nineties the Pashtun Taliban movement encountered stiff resistance in the north of the country, an area not populated by Pashtuns. It suffered heavy casualties in seeking to wrest control. After the fall of the Taliban, Pashtuns living in Uzbek dominated areas became refugees as they were accused of being Taliban sympathisers.
To offset this experience the Taliban are now recruiting non-Pashtuns into its ranks. It is their support which has enabled it to venture into the North of the country, not dominated by Pashtuns. They have even inducted non-Pashtuns into the Taliban leadership council and various commissions. However, if it is to rule the country, post the withdrawal of the US, it would need to induct members of other ethnic groups into the Government.
The message flowing from the talks have indicated that the Taliban have so far refused to speak to the present Afghan Government. The reason given is that if the Taliban talks to the Government it would have accepted the fact that they were rebels, rather than a legitimate second power. At some stage they would have to talk.
The Taliban have also accepted that they cannot be the rulers as they were in the nineties. Their spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, stated in an interview with the Dawn, ‘The intellectual capacity of people has expanded, and a lot of experiences have been gained; hence there shall be no problems in affording women and men all their rights in the future’.
He added, ‘When we say we want an inclusive political system, we mean that the future Government will represent all ethnicities of Afghanistan,’ he said, adding,’All will serve in it, and all will look after the country’s affairs themselves without any arguments’. Thus, it cannot and would not be the Taliban alone. A fact being ignored is that the Afghan army, though facing suicide attacks is growing in stature and power and would never be a pushover.
Other than the Taliban, whom Pak has sheltered, supported, armed and financed, there is no other ethnic group or leadership in the country, which considers Pak as a major ally. For the present government, the Afghan army and its ex-President, who led the intra-Afghan dialogue, Pak is responsible for the present state in the country and it is India which should remain an ideal partner.
The Afghan army and the Taliban would have to be amalgamated, a task which will never be easy, considering the rivalry and hatred between the two. It would not be possible to disembody the Afghan army and run the country with the Taliban alone.
Thus, the future Afghanistan will be vastly different from the one which ruled the country earlier. It would neither follow the same policies nor possess the same power over the population. Immense has changed in the country and if it must maintain order, it would have to change too. It would no longer desire that the country be pushed into stone age as it had done earlier to enforce its rule.
The future Government of Afghanistan, when formed, can never be the Taliban alone, as it was in the nineties. It would include all those who have a stake in the country. Hence, while they would form the majority, they would have to adhere to the needs and demands of other communities. The other communities have never considered Pak to be a close ally.
India has in recent times been a major contributor to Afghan development. Its investments in the country, training of its army and provision of education and other support has won the hearts and minds of the common Afghan. It can no longer be ignored as was done earlier.
It is this which is worrying Pakistan. Pak which had always believed that when the Taliban come to power, the road to Kabul would be through Islamabad, is now realizing that this may not actually happen. The Taliban will, in the words of Zabiullah Mujahid, approach Pakistan ‘as a brother and a neighbour’, seeking ‘comprehensive ties based on mutual respect, just as we seek such relations with all other neighbours’. India must continue to engage with all ethnic groups in Afghanistan, thus ensuring that it continues being a major player in the country.
(The author is former Major General)