Even when the second round of peace talks between representatives of Taliban and officials of Afghan government is almost certain and may take place by the end of July the situation on the battlefront remains fluid.
Clashes between government troops and Taliban fighters remain a regular affair, periodically punctuated by the US drone strikes. And the battle lines keep moving back and forth. The Taliban scored their latest victory against the government in north-east Afghanistan over the weekend as they captured a large police base at Tirgaran in Badakhshan province.
The 100 plus strong police force surrendered and handed over its weapons to the invaders. They did put up a brave fight but not for long enough as the awaited enforcements from Kabul did not reach.
The Taliban took them into custody, but later on as the local elders intervened they were allowed to go home. On the face of it, it looks like a huge setback to the Ghani-Abdullah unity government in Kabul, but in reality it is not, as it is only a tactical victory of the Taliban and may not last long.
The provincial police chief has promised to take back the base, and he may succeed – just as the government forces took back the two cities in Kunduz province that had fallen to the Taliban a week before last month. Given the remote location of the Tirgaran police base and inclement weather, the government could not fly in reinforcement in time.
“We will launch an operation soon and take back control of the base,” says provincial governor Shah Waliullah Adib. But quite a few of the vanquished policemen may not turn up for duty – they are said to have joined the Taliban. With the people in a war for forty years, loyalty remains enigmatic, especially at this juncture when the Taliban have been internationally declared as ‘insurgents’ and no more terrorists and their government has accepted them as stakeholders.
If the Taliban are active on war front they are also no less interested in stitching up a peace agreement with the Afghan government. Nothing unusual about the latest spurt in violence – parties to a conflict would like to join the negotiating table from a position of strength.
At Murree on July 7 there was the first publicly acknowledged face-to-face encounter between the two sides. Then for the first time the Emir of Taliban movement, Mulla Omar, lent momentum to the peace process by endorsing it in his Eid message that was enthusiastically welcomed by President Ashraf Ghani.
At the upcoming round, which takes place in Islamabad, we may not have breakthrough, but critical issues are likely to come up. The Afghan government side – this time expected to be represented by the foreign minister – would ask for a cease-fire as a confidence-building measure.
The Taliban are expected to be represented by their senior leadership, possibly including a Qatar-based Taliban leader. And their principal demands would include the release of prisoners and their share in a kind of national government guaranteed by China and the United States.
Pakistan would play its role as a host, whose sole interest is that the solution to Afghan imbroglio should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. Perhaps never before was the ambience as propitious for a result-oriented Afghan dialogue as it is now.
But no less important is that the talks don’t get derailed, a possibility that cannot be ruled out given the entry of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and reported rejection of the Murree Peace Process by forces perennially hostile to Pakistan through their proxies in Afghanistan.