A hiccup on route to the final settlement

Not only did Trump move scuttled negotiations; he also invited Islamabad to play the game

Shahid Javed Burki September 16, 2019
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice president of the World Bank

In addition to the Taliban, there are three other parties involved in bringing enduring peace to Afghanistan. The US and Ashraf Ghani’s administration are the main interlocutors. Pakistan, having hosted the senior Taliban leaders for decades, also has an obvious interest. The Ghani government and Islamabad were kept informed but were not directly involved in determining the negotiation terms.

The announcement was in keeping with the way President Donald Trump conducts state business to use his Twitter account to spring surprises on the world, in particular, the world outside the country’s border. He had once said that the sign of a good leader is to keep other people guessing by not becoming predictable. His tweets on Saturday, September 7, produced two surprises: one, that he had planned a summit of American, Afghan and Taliban leaders at the Camp David retreat in the mountains of Maryland; and two, that he decided to call off the planned meeting. Both moves surprised even those who were closely watching and analysing the progress Zalmay Khalilzad, the President’s Special Envoy on Afghanistan, was made in the rounds of discussion in Doha. Khalilzad met the Taliban leadership nine times. At the conclusion of the ninth session, he said that an agreement had been reached which would lead to the withdrawal of 5,400 American troops within 135 days after the signing of the agreement, leaving 8,600 armed personnel behind. The number to be staying back would bring the troops to the level when Trump took office. In return, the Taliban would pledge not to work with terrorist organisations such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

What led to the cancellation of the summit then? Trump had an explanation in his Saturday evening tweet. He was upset about the attack mounted two days earlier that killed 12 people, including one US serviceman and a Romanian soldier. The American death increased the number of US personnel killed in Afghanistan to 16 in the first eight months of 2019. This was unacceptable to the American Commander-in-Chief. “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining positions?” he asked in the tweet. “They didn’t, they only made it worse. If they cannot agree to a ceasefire and would kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway. How many more decades are they willing to fight?”

President Ashraf Ghani and his associates were pleased that Trump had suspended the negotiations with the Taliban. They worried that the Taliban were manipulating the peace process. In response to the Trump move to cancel the Camp David talks, they reiterated that the Afghan government was fully committed to bringing peace to this long war-torn country. There was pressure on the Afghan President to postpone the presidential elections scheduled for September 28. He was campaigning hard to win another term in office: he believed a decisive win by him would strengthen his hands with both the Americans and the Taliban.

According to reports in the American press, the idea of concluding the negotiations at a Camp David summit came from President Trump himself, who in order to improve his elections prospects wanted to put his stamp on the final deal. He was not willing to have all the credit go to his envoy, Khalilzad. The Camp David meeting had great appeal to the President who is always looking for good theatre. His plan was not to have all the parties seated around one table. He would have shuttled between the Afghan government representatives and the Taliban delegation. This shuttle diplomacy would introduce some needed changes in the agreement Khalilzad had negotiated. The President would then announce it to the world himself. As one report in The New York Times put it, Trump would not only bring the Taliban to Washington, “but to the crown jewel of the American presidency. The leaders of a rugged militant organisation deemed terrorists by the United States would be hosted in the mountain getaway used for presidents, prime ministers and kings just three days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that led to the Afghan war.” The fact that the Taliban would be visiting the hallowed grounds of Camp David a couple of days before the 9/11 anniversary bothered many in the States.

Not only the unexpected Trump move scuttled negotiations, but it also cancelled or put on hold the follow-up discussions that were planned. A meeting between Afghan officials and Taliban leaders — agreed to as part of the deal and scheduled to be held in Oslo on September 23 — was cancelled as was a donors’ conference to fund post-agreement Afghanistan.

There were serious differences between Trump’s close advisers. While Khalilzad and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were in favour of concluding a deal quickly, John Bolton, the National Security Adviser, as opposed to the terms that had been worked out. He argued that Trump could pull out 5,000 troops while still leaving enough forces to assist counterterrorism efforts without a deal with the Taliban, a group he argued that could not be trusted to fulfil its obligations in the deal. In a brief interaction with the press on September 9, Trump said there were no prospects of resuming discussions with the Taliban. His statement was made while envoy Khalilzad arrived in Washington to brief his government’s officials. Bolton’s opposition to the Camp David talks cost him his job. He was dismissed by Trump on September 10.

Some in Trump’s inner circle wanted to bring Pakistan into the deal. “My advice to the administration is, let’s shore up our relations with Pakistan,” said South Carolina Senator, Lindsey Graham, who had emerged as the closest person from Congress to the President. He was of the view that Islamabad should be offered a free-trade agreement which would be welcomed by Imran Khan’s administration to ease its current poor financial situation. Graham said that the Taliban must be prevented from believing it can seek safe harbour in Pakistan, continuing what they had done in the past.

But Islamabad was not waiting for an invitation from Washington to play a role. It had other irons in the fire. It was working at the foreign ministers’ level with Afghanistan and China to work out how the three countries could come together to take economic advantage of the return of peace to Afghanistan after decades of war. In the third meeting of the Trilateral Foreign Ministers Dialogue, this time held on September 7 — the day of the Trump tweets — the group explored the possibility of extending the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan cooperation, welcomed the progress made on the implementation of projects under the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Practical Cooperation Dialogue, building the Peshawar-Kabul Motorway and extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to include Afghanistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 16th, 2019.

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