Ambassador Mohammad Sadiq |
Abrupt changes in U.S. policy in Afghanistan no longer surprise the world. Just a few months ago, President Trump decided to reverse his belligerent posture of his August 2017 South Asia Policy without much notice. This change in U.S. policy had little to do with the ground situation in Afghanistan, which has not altered since 2017. The policy transformation was ostensibly dictated by U.S. internal dynamics, particularly it seems President Trump’s re-election bid in 2020. In addition to his earlier assertions, many through his favourite medium Twitter, President Trump reiterated in the State of the Union Address on 7 February 2019, his determination to withdraw from “endless wars of unlimited spending and death”.
Despite being the one who calls the shots, the U.S. could never sustain any policy in Afghanistan for the long period; Washington always gave the impression of being a tentative partner and basing one’s decision-making on U.S. policy in Afghanistan was always going to be a grave mistake. The governments in Kabul, unfortunately, have been as short-sighted as Washington. Maybe it’s a lack of options. Or maybe the society is too fragmented to think farther than personal, family or clan interests. In any case, the war economy is enriching a new elite on all sides of the ethnic and political divide. Why part with a generational opportunity to get rich? Recent developments have raised hopes for peace in Afghanistan.
The governments in Kabul, unfortunately, have been as short sighted as Washington. Maybe it’s a lack of options. Or maybe the society is too fragmented to think farther than personal, family or clan interests.
Washington has extended two major concessions to the Taliban to bring them to the negotiation table: withdrawal of their troops and excluding Kabul’s National Unity Government (NUG) from the peace talks. The Taliban, in return, have pledged to disallow the use of Afghan territory against the U.S. and its allies by international terror organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaida. The immediate result of the U.S. decision to engage with the Taliban on the latter’s terms have given them new confidence, as they are now perceived and received as a legitimate party in world capitals. However, positive indicators towards the peace process notwithstanding, challenges persist. Violence, extremism and terrorism are the lurking threats that make the Afghan reconciliation process very fragile.
Success would come only if greater maturity of conduct and deeper understanding of limitations by relevant parties take center stage. Other challenges to peace relate to the institutional weaknesses and capacity limitations of regional states. Conflicts amongst them make it worse. These issues already make South Asia the least integrated region. Stronger commitment, greater engagement and frequent multi-level contacts, as well as an innovative approach, will be required to address all these challenges. The continuing military stalemate in Afghanistan is nothing less than a defeat for the U.S. Trump rushing into negotiations with the Taliban strengthens this impression.
Read more: Taliban announce talks with US in Islamabad
On the other hand, stalemate is all that the Taliban needed to survive, thrive and claim victory. The long occupation and mishandling of the Afghan population have created new hues of Taliban foot soldiers and field commanders. They are less ideological but equally dangerous. Internal conflicts usually culminate in political solutions. However, the Taliban, one party to the conflict in Afghanistan, does not consider the National Unity Government (NUG) sitting in Kabul as a legitimate stakeholder. They insist on talking only to the occupiers who have installed governments in Kabul since 2001.
To attract the Taliban to the negotiation table, the U.S. agreed to exclude – at least for now – the NUG from the peace talks, which in turn feels betrayed and abandoned. On the other hand, elements in NUG would have no interest in peace talks even if the Taliban were to agree to sit across the table from them. If the U.S.-Taliban talks succeed, the NUG will be dissolved instantly and an interim government brought in and President Ashraf Ghani and his allies in Kabul are aware of this.
How did we reach here today?
President Trump in his 2016 election campaign pledged to end U.S. involvement in costly wars in faraway lands like Afghanistan. However, his first policy direction on Afghanistan in August 2017 took a different route: under influence of his Generals, Trump undertook to subdue the insurgency and then talk to a weakened and demoralized Taliban for peace. But the events on the ground did not move in that direction. The Taliban performance on the battlefield became even more intrepid. They added to their erstwhile control of population and territory, and they appeared more united and confident.
The war economy is enriching a new elite on all sides of the ethnic and political divide. Why part with a generational opportunity to get rich?
By December 2018, President Trump decided to withdraw half of 14,000 US troops from Afghanistan (and all from Syria). There was a strong reaction to this decision. His Secretary of Defense resigned and the Senate rejected the withdrawal plan in a resolution adopted on 4 February 2019. President Trump, however, remains adamant to withdraw troops from both theatres. The U.S. and Taliban have held several rounds of talks in recent weeks. The lead from the U.S. side, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been reporting progress in these talks. In his address at U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on 8 February 2019, he said the U.S. expected to reach an agreement with the Taliban before July 2019.
The Taliban spokesman, however, was more circumspect. After every round of talks, his focus has been on the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. He has repeatedly reiterated that the Taliban will not talk to the NUG, as they are mere puppets of an occupying power. However, after Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar’s induction in the talks and his first luncheon meeting with Khalilzad in Doha on 25 February, the Taliban Spokesman appeared more positive about the prospects of peace. In the latest round of U.S.-Taliban talks held in the last week of February 2019 in Doha. Former Taliban deputy chief Mullah Baradar is supervising the Taliban negotiation team, he was in Pakistan’s custody since 2010 and recently released on U.S. request as the Taliban appointed him to be a part of their team for peace talks.
The Taliban have not agreed to a ceasefire yet and their spectacular attacks continue to create mayhem in Afghan cities, particularly targeting security personnel. The talks may provide an excuse to the U.S. to withdraw but have not brought any respite to Afghan people and soldiers. After a round of intra-Afghan talks hosted between the Taliban and Afghan leaders on 6 February 2019, Ashraf Ghani resolved not to surrender to “a temporary peace deal”. The representatives of the Kabul government were not invited to Moscow parleys either.
The important elements of the peace process include the Taliban’s demand for a timetable of withdrawal of all foreign forces, their delisting from UN 1267 and U.S. terror lists; and release of prisoners. The U.S. in return has demands of ceasefire and guarantees that the Afghan territory will not be used by international terrorists like Al Qaida and ISIS against the U.S. and its allies. They also want the Taliban’s agreement to be a part of an interim government and accept the Afghan Constitution, in essence for the Taliban to become a part of the electoral politics.
How close are we to a Peace Agreement?
During his USIP address, Zalmay Khalilzad claimed that negotiations with Taliban and intra-Afghan dialogue would run in parallel and both these tracks would be brought together in due course. If Khalilzad’s projection is fulfilled, a number of tricky issues will be on the table very soon. The chief amongst them would be the power-sharing formula. This is a tall order though, for Afghan actors power sharing is an unfamiliar concept. The NUG itself – a power-sharing arrangement between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns – would have broken to smithereens had it not been without overt and covert U.S. pressure. Since the news from Doha increasingly appears positive, the speculations of reaching an agreement are ripe.
The Taliban performance on the battlefield became even more intrepid. They added to their erstwhile control of population and territory, and they appeared more united and confident.
The path to reconciliation, however, remain arduous. This initial positivity was possible as the two sides – particularly the U.S. – made great concessions, but the devil is in the detail. The difficult decisions would concern the formation of an interim government and future of NUG members, and the Taliban adherence to the Constitution; which could not eschew a western style electoral process in the long run, even if it is heavily amended or rewritten. And the mother of all questions would be how to implement the agreements in letter and spirit. Afghan factions historically have a poor record of implementing agreements reached on negotiation tables.
Within the U.S., the deep state has little appetite for total withdrawal from Afghanistan. Few U.S. bases are actually being further strengthened even at this time while their President is promising withdrawal. It remains to be seen if the Taliban would agree to some kind of U.S. presence in post-reconciliation phase. It is improbable but not impossible. The concerns about a precipitous withdrawal provide a palatable excuse for ‘temporary’ U.S. presence in reduced numbers.
The irony of ‘temporary’ deployment of U.S. forces in foreign lands such as Japan and South Korea is not lost on students of history. However, the deep state would have the support of Congress for such a presence. So far it seems that the purported timelines for withdrawal are probably for the latter half of the election year. Candidate Trump obviously hopes to exploit this for his re-election in 2020.
Any Debate on Afghanistan is Incomplete without Mentioning Pakistan
Afghanistan is important for Pakistan on many scores. History, faith, culture and geography have conjoined Pakistan and Afghanistan in an inseparable destiny. In view of violence and instability of the last few decades, national, bilateral and international efforts to promote peace and security in Afghanistan and beyond largely define these bilateral relations. Pakistan has supported an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led national reconciliation process. However, the lack of trust and confidence between the two countries, as well as between struggling Afghan groups and within the NUG, has meant that Islamabad has faced an uphill task to work it out.
The chief amongst them would be the power-sharing formula. This is a tall order though, for Afghan actors power sharing is an unfamiliar concept.
Pakistan and Afghanistan need to guard against those foreign and domestic elements who stand to gain from continued instability in Afghanistan and those whose survival and capacity to foment trouble depends on tensions between two nations. Unfortunately, both have lowered their guard too often. Emphasis on security in Pak-Afghan relationship is almost unavoidable. Yet, peace and security is not merely the absence of conflict. Peace remains fragile unless supported by strategies to promote development and prosperity.
Sustainability of peace depends on a comprehensive program to promote an integrated economic vision; develop regimes to manage natural resources as well as natural disasters; promote people to people contacts; establish linkages in the fields of culture, education and sports; as well as building mutual trust and confidence. The accident-prone nature of our bilateral relations have bred a fall out of its own. Pakistan can’t give up on Afghanistan as its foremost priority is, and should be, to build a peaceful neighbourhood. In this endeavour, relations with Afghanistan should remain Pakistan’s primary focus.
Regrettably, an unconditional commitment at the highest level to the bilateral relationship is not fully explored. Afghanistan and the developments around it, were always puzzling for the outside world. This enigma is even more pronounced today. Afghanistan remained a puzzle for Pakistan too. Pakistan’s dilemma is mind-boggling on many scores. Our long term Afghan policy is so incoherent that it barely exists. We are a nation that has made muddling through, a pillar of all our policies. The entitled policymakers allege that someone else was formulating, controlling and implementing the Afghan policy.
The irony of an absence of a long term coherent policy is lost on them. Pakistan follies and they are many, are mostly interpreted as bad intentions by Kabul. No doubt Kabul has the India “option” while dealing with Pakistan but stretching this option too far is a fallacy. India’s interest in Afghanistan is to counter arch-enemy Pakistan; not their love for Afghans who are portrayed in Indian folklore as plunderers, usurpers and barbarians. Interestingly, Afghans are portrayed as heroes in Pakistani folklore.
Ambassador Mohammad Sadiq has served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan and as Secretary National Security Division of the Government of Pakistan. He is a writer and a Social Entrepreneur. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.