Pakistan has intensified its pressure on the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government. There were also (conflicting) reports that a senior Afghan Taliban leader had been arrested ahead of the visit of US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and Lisa Curtis, who looks after South and Central Asian affairs in the National Security Council.
The question is: will the Taliban agree to be a part of a broad-based government of reconciliation or would they rather wait for the US troop drawdown and then try and recapture Kabul?
The most decisive factor, however, is President Trump’s impatience with the unwinnable wars against the imperial imperatives of the US establishment, its military-media establishment in particular. His defence secretary Jim Mattis resigned and his National Security Advisor John Bolton defied him on his decision to withdraw from Syria. This as the US federal government is facing a partial shutdown, special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is hanging on Trump’s head and the Congress is weighing the prospects of his impeachment.
Followed by Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, it was indicated that half of the 14,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan may be withdrawn. America’s Nato allies are faced with their own crises – British Prime Minister Theresa May has lost the vote on Brexit and French President Macron is bogged down under street agitation. In the words of former British MP George Galloway: “The old world is dying; the new one cannot be born. If we are not careful we will soon be alive in the time of monsters”.
Given this volatile situation of the Western powers, and encouraged by their advances against a tottering Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul, the Taliban are inclined to toughen their negotiating position. Under pressure from Pakistan, Saudi Arab and United Arab Emirates, some progress was reported in the last three sessions of negotiation between the US and the Taliban, at Abu Dhabi in particular.
But, after getting signs of US withdrawal, the Taliban cancelled the round that was to take place in Qatar. They reportedly did so on issues of agenda; they wanted to discuss the withdrawal timeline, release of prisoners and lifting of travel sanctions on their leaders. But they refused to sit with the Afghan government for reconciliation and to discuss the future setup of a broad-based government. The Taliban seem to be in a similar mindset as their predecessors, the Afghan Mujahideen, who after the Geneva Accord of 1988 and withdrawal of Soviet forces refused to enter into a settlement – under the auspices of the UN – with President Najeebullah’s regime. This led to an internecine conflict after the fall of the leftist government in 1992.
According to a research carried out by the BBC in January 2018, the Taliban were active in 70 percent of Afghanistan or were in control of 14 districts. They could not, however, make any spectacular advancement after the drawdown of over 100,000 troops in 2014. The over 350,000 strong Afghan National Army, despite defections and heavy casualties, was able to restrain the Taliban from taking over any major city. If the US airpower, military and financial backing continues, the Taliban won’t be able to run over Kabul.
A section of the armed resistance is, however, over-confident that as soon as the US decides to withdraw its remaining troops, the Kabul government, which it dubs as ‘puppets’, will imminently collapse. But what they are forgetting is that the US, its Nato allies and other powers, including Russia and China, do not trust their verbal or written pledges to not make Afghanistan an epicentre of international terrorism or a base for Al-Qaeda or Daesh type outfits. At the moment, the talks are stuck due to the Taliban’s stance and their refusal to engage with the Afghan government for reconciliation and power-sharing and the kind of guarantees and terms the US is demanding in exchange for the ‘disengagement’ of foreign troops.
The US envoy’s visit to Islamabad is preceded by those of the governor of the Tabuk province of Saudi Arabia and the Afghan president’s special envoy Umar Daudzai. In the current scenario of financial vulnerability, Pakistan is under many obligations and pressures from Saudi Arabia and the UAE who would also like to see Islamabad play a role in getting the Taliban to join the reconciliation process being brokered by the US. The bailout packages are the kind of crucial leverages that the US allies in the region are likely to apply to keep Pakistan on board. The US envoy’s four-nation visit took him to Beijing and Delhi where he met with the Indian external affairs minister and others. Former Afghan president Karzai was also in New Delhi to persuade India to play a greater role to balance what Assistant Secretary General of Nato Alejandro Alvargonzalez called “the most important role” of Pakistan. It seems the newfound US-Pak nexus has excluded India from playing any crucial role in the settlement of the Afghanistan imbroglio.
What is interesting to note, according to highly placed sources, is that the US is zeroing on two demands: two US military bases and firm guarantees to not allow the use of Afghan soil for international terrorism. Those involved with the process have revealed to the press that the Taliban seemed to be flexible about American military presence in exchange for crucial concessions. These behind-the-scene developments led to the whirlwind tour of Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to Russia and China which would be reluctant to allow permanent US military bases in Afghanistan. The Trump administration is in a hurry and wants to arbiter an “intra-Afghan political settlement” with the help of Pakistan. If it doesn’t happen by the mid of this year, Trump might lose his patience and decide to leave Afghanistan as he is doing in Syria – leaving it to Russia, China and other regional countries to play a decisive role. He has already tweeted out wondering why Russia, China, Pakistan and India don’t play a greater role than America.
In these conflicting moves and amidst the diverse machinations of so many players, there are three possible scenarios: first, the US, Pakistan, China and Russia together bring together all Afghan stakeholders for a broad-based government of reconciliation; second, President Trump suddenly withdraws troops from Afghanistan – leaving it at the mercy of yet another bloody civil war; third, the Taliban wait for the US troop withdrawal and take over Kabul with the help of other regional powers not ready to tolerate US permanent military bases in Afghanistan.
Given these scenarios, Pakistan must weigh its options very carefully. After waiting for this moment for so long and at a very exorbitant cost, it must ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t enter another phase of destabilisation as had happened after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1988 and the fall of Dr Najeebullah’s government in 1992. It must play its role in getting the Taliban to join the reconciliation process for a broad-based government that includes all stakeholders and is backed by the international community for a post-war reconstruction of Afghanistan. Bringing the Taliban back into power in Kabul might be tempting for some, but it would be disastrous for Pakistan’s future as a modern democratic state. If we want South Asia and Central Asia to become an economically connected region, then there is no option but a durable settlement of the conflict and the reconstruction of an Afghanistan that preserves its unity and respects Pakistan’s territorial integrity and legitimate national interests.
Most vulnerable in these scenarios is the Afghan government. If it is keen to reconcile with the Taliban and wants Pakistan to play a role in that, it will have to abandon its half-clever tactics of playing Delhi against Islamabad. New Delhi must also forget to use Afghanistan and its soil as a second rear-front against Pakistan. The choices are limited for all the players and they should not play their ambitious designs at the cost of others.
The writer is a senior journalist.