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September 9, 2019

Trump has only least bad option — Afghan Taliban deal


September 9, 2019

President Trump’s tweet postponing Afghan Taliban talks on the ostensible reason of a ceasefire as stumbling block, came as a surprise for many Afghan watchers around the world when both the US and Afghan Taliban were believed to be on the cusp of a formal deal.

Why President Trump while this much closer to a potential agreement made the decision? Is it going to be a serious blow to the peace talks with the prospects of scuttling any breakthrough reached after almost a dozen round of negotiations between Washington’s pointman Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban delegation in Doha? Does the US has other options and what ramifications are likely for Pakistan if the US pulls off the talks?

The draft agreement between the Taliban and the US circulated in Washington and Kabul sparked unprecedented reaction in the US in particular. Trump is billed as impulsive President; however, in line with his classic fashion of doing things, he tweeted this sudden diplomatic move to suspend the talks. It was partly aimed to enhance his leverage to squeeze the Taliban concede more during the talks and partly to assuage fears in the US public opinion, naysayers in Congress and the worries of the Defence Establishment (which is ultimately going to have a final “say” on the Taliban deal) that he is listening to their concerns.

Folks in the US are reacting now to the possible deal; they are awakening late to the harsh reality: (as they have still vivid memory of 9/11 which was triggered by the Taliban and Al Qaeda alliance) they have now fathomed that the US is handing over Afghanistan’s keys to the same group complicit in the killing of around 2000 US citizens on 9/11. Important Republican Congressmen/women, like Lindsey Graham and Liz Cheney voiced strong skepticism on the deal and asked US Negotiator in chief, Zalmay Khalilzad, to testify before the House.

The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is another top Trump Administration official who refused to sign on the dotted lines of the impending deal, in part due to his ambitions to run for 2024 presidential elections so would not appear to be aiding Trump by supporting the unpalatable Taliban deal. Trump’s NSA John Bolton was kept out of the loop during all negotiations with the Taliban.

The US military establishment is in the middle of the discourse: it does not want to be seen to be signing off a precipitous withdrawal as a result of the Taliban deal, hence it wants to retain some anti-terror capability which has not been conceded yet by the Taliban negotiators in the draft.

In other words, the fate of the Taliban deal will likely be decided next week or so, not by the public opinion in Afghanistan, Pakistan or any other country but by the compulsions and vicissitudes of Washington’s domestic politics.

The ceasefire is apparently billed as main bone of contention but it is the only leverage the Taliban have and as a result, the US military understands they will not agree to any wider, country wide ceasefire and for any longer term until and unless all bits of intra-Afghan dialogue and a resulting agreement are in place.

Dilemma the US faces in Afghanistan is they have not many better options left: for example if no deal, then what? The extent and scope of their stick means they can only maintain the current tactical stalemate—they achieved over the course of almost a decade’s military surge— ie, not allowing the Taliban to capture population centres and to let keep them. Being a smart army, the US has seen its limitations in Afghanistan. The US military can drone and bomb Taliban but for how long? This was the strategy the US used in Vietnam resorting to carpet bombing yet eventually suffered a grave humiliation, vividly ingrained in the US public imagination even today; then 2007/2008 Iraq is also a moot point when the US military could not bomb their way out of the country. If all bits are off in Afghanistan, the US can not save itself of another Vietnam experience.

The US can not remain in Afghanistan for ever; the current level of troops (i,e, 12000) could not defeat the insurgency; the Afghan Army is not good enough to eliminate the Taliban off the earth; more US troops are no option; eventually military will come down to say for how long they can stay: the soldiers after 9/11 are no more in Afghanistan; others are on 6th/8th rotation of their duty tours to the country. The only realistic trajectory is downhill— 12000, then 8500, 4000 then to 2000 troops at the end.

Washington has no least bad options—the least bad option is the Taliban deal. Washington has only carrot option and its stick will achieve no strategic objective, (eg, withdrawal-end to combat mission running for 18 years), except for tactical gain.

If Trump sticks to his guns and let spoilers scuttle the impending deal, it would have grave implications for Pakistan. Islamabad has huge stakes in peace and Afghan reconciliation: it has been fighting militancy and terrorism since 9/11; it has faced spill over effects and is combating them even today. Afghanistan being a sanctuary of the proxy war by India and its Afghan counterparts is a national security challenge; if ensuing US draw down without Afghan settlement becomes a reality, Islamabad will have to start dealing with another possible protracted civil war sucking in regional actors and spoilers likening 1990s, undermining its hard-won stability and incurring paying big opportunity cost in terms of economic revival, development and soft image.

Again, Islamabad will be a bad poster boy for the US as Washington will use Pakistan as scapegoat for any scuttled Afghan deal and humiliation it suffers out of its own folly, the last thing both Pakistan and the US need. (The writer’s is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan, and ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of Centre for Geo-Politics & Balochistan)

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