Afghanistan must now reconcile with the groups that have wreaked havoc in the country's villages and cities for the past 10 years. That is what the United States, the United Kingdom and the rest of NATO states want. Even China is on board.
The already staggering Afghan casualty figures have soared to new heights after the international combat mission ended a year ago. The country suffered almost 5,000 civilian casualties only during the first half of 2015; nearly 30,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen were killed from 2009 to mid-2015. December saw a 57 percent rise in civilian casualties.
Obviously Afghans, more than anyone else, want an end to the conflict. But, unlike their international partners, they do not want peace at any cost. They are not willing to forsake the gains of the past 15 years.
After many ups and downs, the troubled peace process was resuscitated recently through the creation of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China. The first QCG meeting was held last week in Islamabad, and the group is due to meet again in Kabul on Monday.
Pakistan wants peace or powersharing
The initial meeting's modest outcome was praised in Pakistani and Western media, but failed to generate confidence among Afghans.
On the same day that Islamabad was hosting the QCG talks, three students were killed and eight wounded in a rocket attack on an elementary girls' school in Afghanistan's Khost province, and a complex suicide attack on Jalalabad city was thwarted.
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Meanwhile in Islamabad, Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistani representative at the talks, urged the Afghan government to create an "environment conducive to reconciliation", take "confidence-building measures" and "offer incentives" to the Taliban.
Pakistan's change of terminology from 'peace' to 'reconciliation' reflects its push for Kabul to agree to a power-sharing arrangement with Islamabad's proxies.
President Ashraf Ghani wants to frame the talks with a focus on "the drivers of conflict" and on ways to end the use of non-state actors as instruments of foreign policy. In other words, he wants Pakistan to stop its proxy war in Afghanistan for achieving its strategic goals.
Pakistan wishes to have a measure of control over the Afghan state. It wants to use Afghanistan to create a "strategic depth" vis-a-vis its arch-nemesis, India.
A sovereign Afghanistan is also an obstacle to Pakistan's desire to have free access to Central Asian natural resources and markets. At the same time, Islamabad wants Kabul to recognise the Durand Line as the official border between the two countries.
Pakistan's change of terminology from "peace" to "reconciliation" reflects its push for Kabul to agree to a power-sharing arrangement with Islamabad's proxies. Amending the constitution to reflect the Taliban's ideology is another demand on Islamabad's list.
Neither this nor any future Afghan government can make a unilateral decision on the Durand Line. The artificial border is a remnant of the British Raj and was imposed in 1884 after the second Anglo-Afghan war.
Afghans maintain that since the agreement was with the British colonial power, it became null and void after India's independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. This is a matter of national pride for the Afghans.
Afghanistan and its relationship with India
Pakistan's demand to control Afghanistan's relations with India - its opposition to the Indian consular offices in Afghan provinces being one manifestation of this - is a clear infringement of Afghan sovereignty. Ghani has made it abundantly clear that such an intrusion is not acceptable.
|India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul [Reuters]
He has repeatedly said that Afghanistan's independence, sovereignty and constitution are non-negotiable and that "peace is not equivalent to reconciliation".
Ghani has also assured Afghans, time and again, that the first two chapters of the constitution, containing the nature and structure of the state and the fundamental rights and obligations of citizens, are not negotiable.
Women's equal rights, freedom of expression, inviolability of human life and dignity, the right to form political parties and associations and the right to education are among values that the Taliban do not share, if its rule in the 1990s and its current behaviour are any indication.
While Pakistan was pushing for a "conducive environment" for Taliban groups at the QCG meeting, Afghan media headlines were about the completion of 63 new school buildings in Sar-e-Pul province, the graduation of 300 young women from USAID's women's leadership development programme, the launch of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music's sixth winter season, and the thousands of fans welcoming the triumphant national cricket team at Kabul airport.
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Under the Taliban rule, girls were prohibited from attending school; women were entirely shunned from public life; boys were forbidden to play sports; music was banned. Afghans don't want to return to that life.
The QCG statement underscored "Afghan-owned" and "Afghan-led" talks. In reality, peace has so far been a US-driven agenda.
Parallel to the decision to end its Afghanistan war, the US initiated a push for the peace process as a means to leave behind a semblance of stability.
The process has not been successful, mainly because Pakistan believes that it is through patience and sustained pounding of the Afghan state and people - especially after the international troops' exit - that it will eventually attain its objectives. Attending meetings in the name of peace or reconciliation since 2010 is but a stalling tactic.
Will Taliban renounce power?
Perhaps Islamabad is also counting on the collapse or weakening of the National Unity Government of Ghani and his Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah. The Afghan president is already paying a heavy political price domestically for his initial conciliatory gestures, as they have not borne results. The fragile political environment in Kabul has no room for more concessions.
Afghanistan is not prepared to make further compromises. Pakistan has certainly no reason to make compromises. The majority and stronger Taliban groups, including the Haqqani Network, are not likely to renounce violence. Therefore, prospects for Washington's Pax Afghana are not bright.
To end the conflict in Afghanistan and prevent the country from becoming a springboard for a multitude of terrorist groups requires a bold shift of paradigm.
First, the balance of power on the ground must be tilted. The US should revert back to full combat missions with clear strategic objectives. After 15 years of experience, US generals can surely devise effective combat strategies that won't require a dramatic surge of troops.
Simultaneously, the US must abandon its ambiguous policy towards Pakistan and - along with China, other key allies, and the UN - apply pressure on Islamabad through sanctions, a comprehensive suspension of aid, and the threat of isolation. US President Barack Obama still has a chance to initiate a true end to America's longest war before leaving office.
Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
Source: Al Jazeera