Much change is forecast in the post-Covid-19 vaccine new year. India has become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Joe Biden will take over as the president of the United States in less than three weeks, China’s Wuhan is more or less back to work like the rest of the country, and Pakistan, in a surprising move on the day after the New Year, re-arrested the Mumbai attacks mastermind Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi.
But it is the all-important second round of negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government that begins in Doha Tuesday to decide the future of Afghanistan that is perhaps the biggest item of change on the cards. The success or failure of these talks will not only impact stability across South Asia, but will also revamp or diminish the reputations of several big powers.
Here are five reasons why the Doha talks are key.
A spate of civilian killings
First things first. The last few weeks of 2020 witnessed several targeted assassinations of Afghan civilians – journalists, human rights activists, students in Kabul University, for example. This is a shift in strategy, away from the targeted killings of Afghan and US security forces (according to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, no American soldiers have died in Afghanistan for several months now) towards civilians, and intended to shock and instil fear in the general population.
There is anecdotal information that people are already leaving Afghanistan for cities like Dubai and New Delhi – although how long they can stay abroad is another question. And while Afghanistan is a long, long way from becoming the unfortunate version of itself that was torn apart during the civil conflict of the 1990s, the fact remains that those responsible for the killings want to achieve exactly that.
Second, who is behind these killings? The Taliban have denied responsibility and no one else has claimed it. Afghan officials point out that it would be stupid of the Taliban to undercut their own negotiations with government officials, especially if they want to leverage them to win power in Kabul.
Several Afghan sources, both civilian and military, have told this reporter that they believe the Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is behind the killings. The ISI believes this is the right time to strike hard, via the Taliban and other organisations like the Haqqani Network it controls, so that the message to the Afghan government negotiators in Doha is clear: surrender.
Afghanistan negotiators gear up
Third, the Afghan negotiating team, which has left for Doha after getting president Ashraf Ghani’s blessings, say they are in no mood to surrender. They say they are negotiating in full faith with their fellow Afghans for the future of their country. They point out that Afghanistan is an “Islamic republic’’ – does Islam give its believers the right to take away the life of another person? So what kind of Islamic republic does the Taliban want, they ask.
If the Taliban wants to once again impose a brutal version of the Sharia, like when it took power in Afghanistan in 1996 — and only three countries in the world, Pakistan, UAE and Saudi Arabia, recognised it — and cut off people’s hands for stealing, flog women for walking on the streets without a male relative, and conduct other activities reminiscent of the Dark Ages, then, the Afghan officials say, that is not acceptable.
Both sides, the Afghan officials say, should be willing to negotiate on anything as long as it is within the parameters of “insaniyat”. They agree that this round of talks in Doha are crucial, and will need the international community to put pressure on Pakistan to drop its ambition of wanting to control the future of Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s game plan
Naturally – and this is the fourth point — Pakistan dropping its ambition is easier said than done. It hasn’t waited in the wings for 19 years to suddenly abandon its need to manage its northern neighbour and control the great game in Inner Asia. In fact, the Pakistanis are playing this part of the game smartly.
On the one hand, they want to show the world that they are taking serious action against terrorists, presumably because they want to get off the Financial Action Task Force ‘grey list’. So on Christmas eve, Mumbai attacks mastermind Hafiz Saeed was given a 15-year jail sentence on a terror-financing case.
Just before New Year’s eve, despite the fact that the Sindh court had let off Omar Sheikh, the murderer of Daniel Pearl and one of the hijackers of IC-814, the Sindh government ordered that he be kept in jail. The day after new year, the Mumbai attacks operational mastermind and Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi was re-arrested from Lahore, where he was openly running a medical dispensary – despite a UN Security Council sanctions committee’s strictures against him.
Meanwhile, Afghan officials say they have confirmed intelligence chatter, which they have shared with the US and other friendly nations, about the Pakistani ISI directing the targeted killings of innocent civilian Afghans.
Which is why — and this is the fifth point – the US National Security Advisor-elect Jake Sullivan’s remarks, that the US will abide by the agreement it signed with the Taliban last February and withdraw all troops, provided the Taliban must also abide by its promise to give up violence, has ignited considerable relief in Kabul.
And so, the stage is set in Doha.
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