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October 27, 2018

The peace of the graveyard

Opinion

October 27, 2018

The bloodbath that marred the parliamentary elections in Afghanistan was on the horizon. The Taliban had ‘advised’ the people to stay away from the electoral exercise, which in their eyes was part of the present ‘un-Islamic, illegitimate system’ that they are bent upon overthrowing.

With Afghanistan continuing to bleed, Washington goes on treating Islamabad as a whipping boy for the roiled nation’s slough of misery. Although a stable Afghanistan is in the interest of both its neighbours and world powers, its attainment seems like gold dust.

The US-led roadmap to restore peace and order to Afghanistan has been undergirded by three components. First, segregate the militants into the good (those prepared to part ways with Al Qaeda) and the bad (those not prepared to do so). Given the might of the Nato/US troops, the latter would be put to rout. Two, through the good offices of Pakistan, the ‘good’ militants could be ‘encouraged’ to lay down their arms and come to the negotiating table on Washington’s terms. Finally, a power-sharing agreement would be struck among the key players. The US would lift the Afghan peace trophy and leave the country with its head held high.

The architect of the roadmap was the Obama administration (2008-2016). It was with a view to segregating the two assumed categories of the Taliban, or to put it diplomatically, to promote peace and reconciliation among Afghan factions, that the quadrilateral peace process involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the US was launched. Making support for Al Qaeda as the touchstone for distinguishing between good and bad militants was understandable as well as significant. It was the Taliban regime’s support to the cataclysmic organisation that had brought the US back to Afghanistan towards the close of 2001 in the wake of 9/11. After Al Qaeda’s supremo Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, Washington’s interest in Afghanistan began to fizzle out. Obama announced that US combat troops would be pulled out by the close of 2014.

The roadmap took too much for granted. The first assumption was that after Al Qaeda had been decimated, the Taliban would be vanquished hands-on. This assumption has turned out to be a pie in the sky. The Taliban have gone from strength to strength. Not only that, the space vacated by Al Qaeda is being filled by its sister brand Daesh or Isis.

Then there were the twin assumptions that the Afghan Taliban were under Pakistan’s influence, and that by pulling the aid strings and threatening to declare Pakistan a sponsor of terrorism, Washington would be able to have Islamabad realign its Afghan policy with that of the former. This entailed two things for Pakistan: prevailing upon the Taliban to negotiate with Kabul and Washington to their satisfaction; and drawing a line in the sand and ceasing support to the militants, who were not willing to negotiate.

Pakistan denies the charge of providing safe havens to the ‘bad’ Taliban or supporting them otherwise. As for Islamabad’s influence on the Taliban, it is grossly exaggerated. The militants have remained suspicious of Pakistan for its role in the toppling of their regime in 2001. If the assumptions with regard to Pakistan were dubious, they were implemented in a seedy manner. If Pakistan is really so important as to hold all the aces in peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict, the US should have treated it far more respectfully.

Instead, Washington put on hold military assistance to Pakistan and facilitated India in getting a toehold in Kabul. The US has been vociferously pleading that Pakistan may allow Indian exports overland access to Afghanistan, without realising that such a move would enormously hurt Pakistan’s economy, which is already under severe stress. So assuming that the Taliban are under Pakistan’s influence, such an approach was doomed to come a cropper.

As US President Trump had been opposed to America’s costly involvement in foreign wars, he should have ensured that his country skip out of Afghanistan. However, in his August 2017 Afghan strategy, he announced beefing up his country’s military presence in the country. In contrast with the ex ante or time-based approach of Obama, Trump’s strategy entailed an ex post or result-based approach. The intended result, however, remained the same – to force the Taliban to agree to a political settlement.

The Trump administration has held two direct rounds of talks with the Taliban in July and October this year. In the second round, the US side was led by the recently appointed special representative on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. The Afghanistan-born diplomat has been highly critical of Pakistan’s Afghan role and in his private capacity has called for declaring Pakistan a terrorist state. After the suspension of military assistance and withholding of the Coalition Support Fund disbursement, Khalilzad’s appointment conveyed a strong message to Islamabad.

Anyway, the direct talks were a long-standing demand of the militants, which has been opposed by Kabul for the reason that it would tantamount to legitimising the Taliban. The acceptance of the demand constitutes a big concession to the militants and brings out Washington’s desperation over the lingering crisis.

Afghanistan presents the spectacle of a strategic game. The Taliban know that only one thing stands between them and the ‘throne’ of Kabul: the presence of American troops. The Afghan coalition government also knows this and so do the US and Pakistan. Not surprisingly, the Taliban’s bottom line is that an agreement on a complete American pullout from Afghanistan must precede negotiating an end to the war. In other words, peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan is not possible in the presence of US troops on Afghan soil.

For the US, peace in Afghanistan is a question of forcing unity among Afghan factions. For the Taliban, it is not a matter of laying down arms but of forcing the US to quit. In the event that an agreement is reached, the US leaves Afghanistan and the Taliban get ‘enough’ political space, who will guarantee that they would not seek to expand their sphere of influence? This question is probably the sticking point in the Afghan peace process.

Understanding that it’s difficult for Washington to accede to this demand, the militants want to keep driving up the cost of continuing military presence for the US and the Afghans themselves until it becomes prohibitive.

American presence in Afghanistan is not the cause of its problems. It was America’s exit from Afghanistan in the late 1980s that created a void and brought the Taliban to ascendency. Had Trump pulled his country out of Afghanistan, the Taliban would have again taken Kabul and the country would have come completely under the influence of the Islamic State, just as it was colonised by Al Qaeda at the turn of the century.

The fault lies with Washington’s approach. Uprooting militancy in Afghanistan so that it does not become a safe haven for another international Islamic militant organisation is one thing and creating a semblance of peace and order in the country is another. Afghanistan achieved such semblance when the Taliban called the shots in Kabul (1996-2001). If at present the overwhelming US purpose is to make Afghanistan peaceful – even if it is the peace of the graveyard – there may not be a better course than to negotiate with the Taliban and leave.

Is Washington prepared for such peace? If yes, then following a time-based approach, it should announce a schedule for complete pullout from Afghanistan and strike a deal with the Taliban. But if it wants to uproot militancy, a long-term commitment is in order. The Americans can’t have it both ways.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

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