US efforts to negotiate a face-saving exit from Afghanistan do not appear to be making much headway. Just as Zalmay Khalilzad and team began a fresh round of talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar on Monday, a Taliban attack on the Afghan intelligence’s training centre in the Vardak province killed over a hundred security personnel. This is being seen as a serious blow to the morale of Kabul’s forces.
The Taliban’s prompt claim of responsibility for the Vardak mayhem underscored their determination to press on militarily, while negotiating the terms of a US withdrawal.
Earlier, the US had launched a triple offensive directed at Pakistan for help in advancing peace talks with the Taliban. Senator Lindsay Graham’s foray into Islamabad provided congressional push to the missions undertaken by American military commanders and diplomatic envoys, especially Zalmay Khalilzad, to Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Collectively, these visits were aimed at applying maximum pressure on Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to open talks with the government in Kabul and move ahead in order to work out a peace agreement with the US.
It is no secret that the impetus for arranging a significant US military withdrawal from Afghanistan comes from President Trump who wishes to reduce spending on open-ended military missions, probably to make resources available for other projects to please his constituents. This, however, clashes with the superpower’s vocation of policing the world and keeping other powers in check. Trump’s ideas about overseas deployment too appear different from Obama’s Pivot Asia plan, aimed at containing China through a massive deployment of assets in the Asia-Pacific region. It is not a surprise that a businessman-turned-president looks at the matter from the angle of cost effectiveness.
If Trump has his way, we can envisage a paradigm shift – one leading to a rollback of America’s global military hegemony. That would consequently bring down the role of America’s military-industrial complex, something that was desired by President Eisenhower but never realised. Alternatively, we could witness a new permutation of the US’s military presence, replacing men with technology. These matters, though important, do not pose a challenge to Pakistan, which is presently feeling the heat of Washington’s pursuit of an early end to its 17-year war in the graveyard of empires that is Afghanistan.
Being America’s friend can be highly risky, Kissinger had warned. Imran Khan who has been critical of past regimes for fighting American wars may soon realise that brokering (America’s) peace is not much easier. When a superpower wants something badly, it will employ all manner of pressures and incentives to reach its goal. A peace deal in Afghanistan would be feasible only if the US offers an attractive package to the Taliban. That is something not on the horizon yet. On the other hand, the Taliban’s acceptance of a ceasefire or talking to the Kabul government might weaken their position.
President Trump may not appreciate that US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were nothing short of modern-era imperialist ventures. However, unlike the old imperialist powers, the US has very limited staying power, hence the urge to leave. Obama had at first wanted to pull out from Iraq as well as Afghanistan. He managed to withdraw US troops from Iraq, terming it an unnecessary war. In contrast, he treated the Afghan operation as a just war, and, despite his surge and drawdown moves, ended up by accepting the Pentagon’s advice against a hasty withdrawal.
The US military establishment’s view is unlikely to have changed but they are playing along Trump’s plan to work towards a major withdrawal, yet leaving a sufficient presence just in case. Trump can then declare victory by showing voters that he is devoting financial resources for their welfare under his ‘America first’ policy. He has been grumbling about the excessive burden the US has to bear in Nato as opposed to its European members.
Trump should realise that diplomatic negotiations are a different ball game as compared to the commercial deal making he is used to. The issues of territory, nationalism and freedom that are at play cannot be evaluated in business terms. Thus, the Taliban’s strongest argument is that as an occupation force, the US will withdraw sooner or later. And anxiety on the part of the Americans to leave quickly does not automatically translate into the Taliban’s cooperation for a peace agreement. That leaves Pakistan as the obvious player to come under pressure so as to persuade the Taliban or cut their support.
Khalilzad’s efforts to pressurise the Taliban to talk to the Kabul regime have remained unsuccessful if not counterproductive. A Pakistani team that reportedly visited Qatar too remained unsuccessful and the idea of a new round of talks in Islamabad did not fly. Indeed, pressure from Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Pakistan on behalf of the US makes the Taliban more diffident. In the midst of conflicting reports about the venue of a new round, the Taliban have stressed that they prefer to talk directly to the American team about any and all matters ranging from ceasefire to talking with representatives of the Kabul dispensation.
The Vardak attack cannot but leave an impact on the peace talks. The US may have to demonstrate their will to persevere and stay in Afghanistan in order to negotiate a peaceful departure. Will Trump understand?