The United States (US) Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, had the first contact with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — the Taliban chief negotiator in Islamabad over the weekend. As per a US embassy official, the “consultations follow discussions held between the US and Pakistan during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last week”. A statement issued by Pakistan’s Foreign Office states, “The visit [by the US and Taliban teams] would provide an opportunity to review the progress made under the US-Taliban peace talks so far, and discuss the possibilities of resuming the paused political settlement process in Afghanistan.”
There is renewed optimism. The positive feelers by the US after a sudden pause; the willingness of the Taliban to re-engage and Pakistan’s steadfast support might be leading towards the so called “review”. However, there is more than what meets the eye, for there are more reasons seemingly at work. Trump’s brinkmanship has apparently failed before a non-blinking Taliban. The US wants closure on the longest war of its history with as much face-saving as possible. Trump wants to take the credit. The economic haemorrhage of the conflict is significant for the US besides the social, psychological, political and human cost. Militarily ascendant, the Taliban are on the offensive throughout Afghanistan with the countryside and night firmly belonging to them. The Afghan elections are over, so is Ashraf Ghani’s worry of the Taliban obstruction. Though the weekend spate between his spokesperson and that of the Afghan Foreign Ministry has laid bare the inner cleavages. Afghanistan’s mineral and other economic potentials are just too big for the US and others to persist in perpetual conflict. The US has made inroads into the Taliban movement and considers re-starting the peace process gainful. Those opposing the deal within the US and Afghan governments have realised that a “bad deal” is still better than “no deal” and the list goes on.
Most sinister is the theory that the US deep state is not interested in peace in this region, and has extracted vital concessions regarding permanent or scheduled presence of the US military and intelligence assets on the Afghan soil, to keep rising China and Pakistani nukes in check; in exchange for the much needed resources required for the building, reconstruction and development of Afghanistan. Proponents of this theory translate the long-term US presence in line with one Taliban aphorism; “bahana Iran, thikana Afghanistan, nishana Pakistan” (the US pretext [for its presence] is Iran, base is Afghanistan, [ultimate] target is Pakistan). However, a US change of heart may originate from any combination of the above reasons.
We have expanded in detail upon the sticking points of the peace parleys previously in this space. To recount, these are ceasefire; withdrawal of foreign forces; intra-Afghan dialogue; and power-sharing arrangements among the stakeholders. Here we would discuss fine-tuning the peace process and overcoming probable hiccups — if and when the accord is signed — such as the implementation mechanism, guarantees, inter-Taliban chasm, dealing with ISIS and proffer relevant policy pointers for Pakistan.
The Taliban may urge starting where they left and move beyond what was agreed at Doha after a 10-month-long arduous process spanning nine rounds. Pakistani interlocutors would do well if they assist both sides in charting a future road map. To lend weight to her position, Pakistan should combine forces with China and possibly Russia. The Taliban ostensibly trust China more than most others.
The implementation process and guarantees would always remain problematic. For the Geneva Accords of the 1980s, the Mujahideen and Afghan government/USSR were parties in conflict and America was one of the guarantors. Today, America is itself party to the conflict and no country like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and/or Iran has that kind of a sweeping influence over the US or Taliban to oversee a fool-proof implementation of the agreement, especially when there are so many spoilers. Implementation by even the Taliban — who lack an effective chain of command like conventional armies — would be understandably inconsistent. Their local commanders may exhibit streaks of independence or seeming insubordination, either due to lack of communication, miscommunication, misperception or misunderstanding. So the implementation of the agreement has to be gradual, step by step, through a verifiable mechanism till the time the US and Taliban have sufficient trust capital. Pakistan needs to be careful against an over-reach and over-commitment.
Any real or imaginary disconnect — due to perception differential amongst the Taliban rank and file and Taliban Political Commission (TPC) Doha — has serious consequences for Afghan peace. While it is important for the US to be reasonable in its demands and expectations, it is equally important for Pakistan and other interlocutors not to ask from the Taliban what they cannot afford to deliver. The US needs to realise that a fragmented Taliban movement would be less capable of agreement implementation and will be a bigger, more intractable problem to deal with, especially considering the ISIS presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan needs to urge the US to reduce its reprisal attacks proportionally in scale, scope and lethality.
The presence of ISIS is of concern to the US, Afghanistan and to the entire region. ISIS is well entrenched in eastern Afghanistan, where even the US has switched militarily to a containment strategy rather than pursuing counter-insurgency. The US needs to understand that the Taliban may not need manpower to combat and root out ISIS; they would need US air, intelligence, surveillance, logistics and other support to fight this common threat, subsequently. This may be an implied rationale for the Taliban agreeing to a 16-months withdrawal timeline of foreign forces. Pakistan needs to firm up such operational details between the US and Taliban — as far as possible — for understandable military implications. All eyes are on Islamabad. The final push towards a peace agreement through Pakistan, using our residual clout with the Taliban, is a humungous challenge enveloped by countless opportunities. Diplomatic dexterity is in high demand to meet the challenge and optimise the opportunities. In the final analysis, MoFA should try to make it a “whole of the government” exercise including Zalmay Khalilzad, Departments of State and Defence and the CIA, remaining mindful of the pulls and pushes within the US and Afghan administrations. The impeachment inquiry against Trump puts a timeline on the commitment by the current administration. Finally, if Pakistan was to appoint experts who are serving or retired as special representative(s) for the Afghan reconciliation process, with requisite authority, it may help focus on this very important undertaking, unburdening the overworked mandarins of our Foreign Office.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 8th, 2019.