Monday May 27, 2024

The Afghan stalemate

By M Saeed Khalid
February 07, 2018

Powerful states are averse to admitting their mistakes. President Obama came close, by conceding that the Iraq war was unjust.

He went on to claim that the war in Afghanistan was a just war but it needed to be brought to an end. His famous troops surge in Afghanistan proved ineffective, leading to a stalemate.

President Trump, having spent a lifetime in boardrooms and TV studios, is still unsure about how to conduct America’s longest war. He has nonetheless pursued his predecessor’s policy to pressurise Pakistan to abandon the Afghan Taliban, so as to strengthen the position of the shaky set-up in Kabul. Trump has, however, complicated matters by punishing Pakistan and supporting India’s role in Afghanistan.

Today, more than ever, the Afghan setting hinges on big power calculations. Successive US administrations have stepped up their strategic partnership with India, as a counterpoise to a rising China. In parallel, China has moved to consolidate its ties with Pakistan and Iran. Russia too is making overtures towards increased influence in the region. Governments and observers alike wonder about America’s real intentions in Afghanistan and, by that extension, in Pakistan. And then comes the million dollar question: does the US know what it wants from the landlocked country, which is often described as a graveyard of empires?

The situation on-ground has worsened with extremely violent acts of terrorism carried out in Kabul and Jalalabad towards the end of January. It appears that President Trump’s idea of stepping up war efforts in Afghanistan has had a ricochet effect, with the Taliban, Haqqanis and the Islamic State demonstrating their power by hitting the most vital centres. An annoyed Trump dismissed talks with the Taliban vowing to defeat them by force.

But this presidential bravado has only a few takers in and outside the US, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A quick rewind to the US-led war in Afghanistan shows us that the Bush administration that led the invasion in the wake of 9/11 were a bunch of hardened warriors out to prove the US’ might. Obama, on the other hand, wanted to cut down on the losses and build a peacetime economy drained by an open-ended war. In comparison, Trump is behaving like a gambler, desperate to win to prove America’s primacy. This has resulted in him appearing to be sprinting while running a marathon race.

Despite some warmongering by Trump and his generals, calls for a negotiated settlement in view of the military stalemate are gathering momentum, even in the US. While Trump threatens Pakistan, and Kabul finds it convenient to hide behind allegations aimed at Islamabad, the need for a serious effort to scale down violence and promote dialogue between the government in Kabul and the Taliban is being felt.

The official meetings between civil, military and intelligence officials in Kabul and Islamabad may not yield results in an atmosphere of real or contrived mistrust. However, serious discussions have taken place notably in two rounds of the Track II meetings, co-sponsored by the Regional Peace Institute, Islamabad and the Royal Danish Defence College. The consolidated report of these talks was released in Islamabad on February 1, in the presence of Afghan, Pakistan and Denmark’s official representatives.

The report conceded that, although war-weariness was on the rise, it was unrealistic to aim for a grand bargain between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The report goes on to raise the possibility of sub-national peace deals as a way to create peace locally. “Local Taliban commanders might be willing to pursue peace, even if the central Taliban leadership is not…However, critics of this approach point to the fact that sub-national deals might risk breaking up Afghanistan into several parts – and will risk splintering the Taliban movement, making a nationwide peace deal with the Taliban impossible.”

The final recommendations of the two conferences in Kabul and Islamabad reaffirmed that the existing strategic stalemate in Afghanistan can lead to negotiations provided both the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership see negotiations as a viable alternative to fighting. Further, negotiations must be held in Afghanistan over: a) cessation of hostilities, for which both sides accept each other as a reality; b) approaching the Taliban with a written peace package that can be offered and negotiated; and c) forming an interim government along with free and transparent elections.

The panel concluded that Pakistan cannot deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table. Pakistan cannot and should not assume a position of leadership in negotiations with the Taliban, but should offer support. It can also start by ‘cleaning up its own house’ by developing and communicating a clear policy on Afghanistan.

Reconciliation between Afghanistan and Pakistan was one of the several sub-themes discussed in both rounds of the Track II dialogue. Among the several recommendations made, the most notable suggestion was regarding the two countries agreeing to a joint border management mechanism. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan should ensure that insurgents do not use their territory to fight the other. Finally, steps should be taken to promote trade, especially by facilitating transit trade that benefits poor people by creating jobs in sectors like transportation storage, etc.

The dialogue brought together well known political and civil society personalities as well as former civil servants, army and police officials as well as media persons from Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries. Any action on the findings and suggestions depends on the decisions of those in power in governments and the Taliban leaders.

Pakistan’s former foreign secretary and author of books on Afghanistan, Riaz Mohammad Khan, pointed out the persistent contradictions impeding progress on a negotiated settlement. These include Kabul and Washington continuing to describe the Taliban as terrorists while seeking a dialogue for reconciliation. More ironic is Kabul’s desire for the Taliban to surrender and the latter’s disdain for the government in Kabul, hence, seeking negotiations with the US.

Khan is of the view that the “Afghan stalemate and fragmented polity is likely to continue, with the hope of reduction in violence and local accommodation among disparate factions rather than of a grand compromise for peace and reconciliation.” According to him, Pakistan is right in opposing the Afghan war’s extension into its territory. But it too should not allow the Afghan Taliban to carry out their activities from Pakistan.