Ghani’s Taliban offer an act of desperation

Author: Chris SandsThu, 2018-03-01 03:00ID: 1519852064988098700LONDON: The Afghan president’s offer to make peace with the Taliban is unlikely to have any immediate impact on the militants or the direction of a war in which civilians are being increasingly targeted in complex, well-coordinated attacks.Ashraf Ghani’s call for a cease-fire and his proposal to recognize the insurgent group as a political party may ultimately say more about his own beleaguered position and the intractability of a conflict now in its 17th year than it does about his ability to come up with a new strategy that has a realistic chance of success.He knows the Taliban have always refused to acknowledge his administration, and the government of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, as legitimate brokers in any peace negotiations. He must also surely suspect that this stance will not change now that the militants are openly active in 70 percent of the country, according to a recent BBC study.For years the militants have said they are willing to talk — but only with American officials. The US toppled its regime in 2001 and continues to station 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. As far as the Taliban leadership is concerned, the last two Afghan presidents have been little more than Washington’s puppets. Ghani’s speech at the opening of an international summit in Kabul yesterday will have played well with many of the dignitaries from the 23 nations in attendance. But Afghans have seen similar gatherings come and go in the past, and the sense of weariness and anger coursing through the country is more acute now than at any time since the American-led invasion. In February, the UN reported that more than 10,453 civilians were killed or injured in Afghanistan during 2017, with 42 percent of casualties caused by the Taliban. While the total number represented a decrease on the previous year, 22 percent of the casualties were caused by suicide bombings and other complex insurgent attacks, compared with 17 percent in 2016.Already this year there have been several high-profile attacks in Kabul, including one on Jan. 27 in which at least 95 people died when a suicide bomber driving an ambulance blew himself up in a heavily fortified part of the capital. The Taliban claimed responsibility, and its fighters seem intent on exploiting the government’s weakness by ramping up the violence in the weeks and months ahead.Ghani’s offer to recognize the group as a legitimate political force is long overdue — a similar gesture by the US and Afghan governments at the start of the war may have helped save thousands of lives.The timing of the president’s offer, amid the current wave of bloodshed, hints at his desperation. The Taliban draw most of their strength from ethnic Pashtuns in the south and east of the country, and pockets of the north. While Ghani is himself a Pashtun, he has minimal support in what should be his natural heartland.Further complicating any potential peace deal is the growing discord emanating from elements of the old Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban regime in the 1990s and was the chief beneficiary of its demise.Several powerful figures from this coalition of warlords and militia commanders feel sidelined by Ghani and are holding to their view that the Taliban are simply a proxy army for Pakistan. Rumours that these rogue officials are plotting a coup, or conspiring to foment violent unrest against the government, refuse to go away.At the same time, Daesh has emerged as a small, but potent, force in Afghanistan. The terror group is unable to hold large areas of territory, but has the capacity to carry out devastating suicide bombings in urban centers and stands ready to embrace any disaffected Taliban fighters who would oppose signing a peace treaty when their group is in the ascendancy.
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