Taliban gets Khalilzad leg before wicket but won’t appeal

Prisoners in overcrowded Afghan jails. (File photo)

The US Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad apparently overreached by effusively welcoming the 21-member list announced in Kabul on Thursday by President Ashraf Ghani to engage with the Taliban in the format of the forthcoming intra-Afghan dialogue. 

Khalilzad tweeted on Thursday: “I want to congratulate Afghan government, political and civi society leaders for coming together. They’ve forged an inclusive negotiating team for talks with the Taliban. The Islamic Republic delegation reflects the true tapestry of the nation and the instrumental role of women.” 

Khalilzad probably doesn’t read posts on Facebook and seems completely unaware of the widespread lampooning of Ghani’s list in the Kabul bazaar and Afghans world over. The general complaint is that the 21-member list comprises names of close relatives of the powerful elite, including guys like the son of the northern warlord Mohammed Atta, who are cyphers politically and have no qualifications to negotiate the future of the country. 

Khalilzad’s motives are obvious. One, he is eager to kickstart the intra-Afghan dialogue (which was originally slated for March 10.) Trump is watching him with an eagle’s eye. ZK is expected to herd the noisy Afghans together at the earliest and if he doesn’t succeed, not only his reputation crashes but his future political career would face sudden death. 

Two, Washington couldn’t care less about the composition of Ghani’s list. What matters is that it is de facto a one-member negotiating team. The captain of the team Masoom Stanekzai, is, although an ex-security chief and supporter of Ghani, a Cambridge-educated figure who has lived in the West in exile and is trusted by the western intelligence as someone who will safeguard US interests in any peace settlement. 

The US probably visualises that Stanekzai, an ethnic Pashtun from Logar, could even be groomed eventually as the figurehead of an ‘inclusive’ interim government acceptable to the Taliban. 

Now, Ghani’s list has put the Afghan opposition politicians in a quandary, especially Abdullah Abdullah who has refused to comment on it so far. Abdullah was hoping desperately to emerge as America’s next ‘man in Kabul’ and took meticulous care to be on the right side of history, but is now being taken for granted by Khalilzad. 

Nonetheless, Abdullah is in no position to say ‘Nyet’ to anything Khalilzad (US) expects out of him. It is moments like this which reveal how keenly the Afghan political class still wants to be in the good books of the US, since American support (political, financial etc.) is irreplaceable under the present circumstances and they are captive passengers on a boat navigated by Washington and Islamabad. 

A somewhat similar dilemma faces former president Hamid Karzai too, who used to be a bitter critic of the US for its alleged weak-kneed response all these years to the Pakistani interference in Afghan affairs, but now hopes to win Pakistani acceptability for himself.  

Besides, Abdullah and Karzai and the Afghan opposition as a whole cannot afford to be seen as putting a spoke in the wheel, since they have been rooting for the intra-Afghan talks with the Taliban leading to an interim government as the only exit route out of the entrenched Ghani era. Yet, it now transpires that Ghani continues to outwit them. 

However, what Khalilzad failed to anticipate was as to whether the Taliban would want to negotiate with Stanekzai, a former spy chief, and his pack of 20 men and women with no credentials to represent Afghanistan, being lightweights. 

Khalilzad made a mistake in assuming that given the Taliban’s eagerness to get into negotiations for a peace settlement as soon as possible (which is also what Pakistan wants), it would simply have no choice but to talk with Ghani’s chosen few. In fact, the Taliban has been lately very accommodative to the US demands, even agreeing to a tacit ceasefire (couched as ‘reduction in violence’.) 

Clearly, the Taliban has reacted negatively to Ghani’s list. The Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid says, “In order to reach true and lasting peace, the aforementioned team must be agreed upon by all effective Afghan sides so that it can represent all sides.” 

But it appears to be a typical Taliban posturing. Taliban has refrained from issuing a formal statement on the matter. And Mujahid too has not outright rejected talks with such an inconsequential team deputed from Kabul. 

To use a metaphor from the game of cricket, Taliban has caught Khalilzad lbw on a sticky wicket, but is yet to demand a ruling by the Third Umpire. Khalilzad will probably have to now fly from Kabul to Islamabad and work out an agreed formula with the Third Umpire in Islamabad. 

Which should not be terribly difficult, provided Washington does not deviate from the letter and spirit of the basic plan negotiated painstakingly over the past year and a half between the US, Pakistan and Taliban regarding the core issues of the Afghan settlement.

These are,  quintessentially, on one hand, Pakistan and Taliban acquiescing with the US’ long-term military/intelligence presence in Afghanistan with the Americans on the other hand accepting the Taliban’s ascendance in the future government in Kabul with international recognition and US partnership as well as acceding to Pakistan’s legitimate interests, especially the ‘Indian factor’, which Islamabad regards as an existential issue. 

Meanwhile, Taliban has also raised the stakes on an issue that matters as top priority — release of the 5000 prisoners. On Saturday, it issued a statement that its prisoners in Bagram are being tortured and brutalised by the Afghan guards deliberately in the run-up to their expected release and if such diabolical behaviour by the Ghani government continues, there will be strong retaliation.

The statement concludes, “If the horrible treatment of the oppressed prisoners is not urgently stopped, the Commission of Prisoner Affairs of the Islamic Emirate will ask military officials to consider military ways for avenge.” To be sure, this is an incendiary issue for the Taliban rank and file, which the Quetta Shura cannot afford to ignore.