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October 6, 2019

Where are things going on Afghan front?


October 6, 2019

In this handout photograph taken and released by the Pakistan Foreign Ministry on October 3, 2019, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi (centre R) receives members of the Taliban delegation at his office in Islamabad. -AFP

At last, the Afghan Taliban visit Pakistan, after returning from a trip to China, Russia and Iran, meeting Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and among others, the ISI Chief Gen Faiz Hameed. They also held talks with the US Representative Zalmay Khalilzad at the US Embassy Islamabad—though Washington says no formal talks have resumed and publicly demanded a ceasefire as pre-condition for new round of talks with the Taliban.

More: Pakistan, Afghan Taliban push for early resumption of talks

The substance of Taliban position has not changed. They are not prepared for upfront ceasefire nor willing to engage with Ashraf Ghani government. Emboldened by tactical victories on the battlefield in Afghanistan, they are really convinced of their upper hand in negotiations with the US: the Taliban are no longer a pariah outfit; they have attained legitimacy after engagement with Washington, recent visits to other regional capitals allude to their acceptance as important stakeholders.

However, the Taliban understand their limits: they need the support of the US to sustain their gains in Afghanistan if political settlement is reached with Washington, which includes international recognition, legitimacy and economic aid to afloat state structures. This is also one major incentive that force them to include other Afghans in the possible post-US-Afghan dispensation, (a lesson they have learnt from 1990s’ experience—the need for recognition and economic assistance).

The price they pay is not as big as they can easily meet the US expectations: no attack from Afghanistan against the US interests, stability and implementation of the proposed settlement. They also understand the limitations of the US position so they will continue to stick to stalled talks with Washington and will also likely meaningfully engage with other Afghan segments after the current impasse.

Whereas the US vulnerability is more obvious than ever, the talks were stalled by President Trump though, Washington has limited options on Afghanistan: it cannot defeat the insurgency; it has no hope to achieve draw-down goal ever by “staying the course”; cut and run is no option as like Vietnam example, it is going to be a betrayal with American blood and treasure lost in Afghanistan.

Ironically, the US has no leverage to force Taliban for front-loaded ceasefire—a 1000 pond panda in the room. And worse, with limited strategic options and without ultimate settlement, the US will leave behind a civil war situation. Hence, the only window is a deal with the Taliban no matter how difficult and unpalatable that may be.

As far Pakistan, it wants a settlement and immediate resumption of stalled talks between the Taliban and the US. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s promise to continue to facilitate the Afghan reconciliation is in line with Islamabad’s quest to seek peace and stability in the region.

The help was extended when the Trump Administration came closer to Pakistan’s narrative on Afghanistan, e.g, there is no military solution and only talks can end the conflict. Then Washington sought Islamabad’s role in facilitating the reconciliation effort. Bilaterally, both Pakistan and the US have come far from earlier days of misunderstanding and converged to encourage the Taliban to talk to the US—banking on leveraging Pakistani influence.

However, Islamabad cannot force the Taliban for front-loaded ceasefire —the only leverage the Taliban have to draw concessions with the US and in potential intra-Afghan dialogue—prior to any settlement. The limited influence of Pakistani leverage comes not in shape of total control of the Taliban, (ie, as wrongly perceived by many), but its soft power that it exercises—in the past the Taliban leadership was frequently visiting Pakistan, getting some medical facilities. They also had immediate families connections at a time when Afghanistan was a no-go-area due to Nato’s military surge. There is a room for further tweaks and improvements on the length of ceasefire or reduction in violence only after the major agreement between the Taliban and the US.

The clichéd-Afghan-led talks may not materialise in the real world. And here is why: Ashraf Ghani government has failed to gain legitimacy due to low turnout in presidential elections (e.g, around 2 million out of 9 million registered votes, totally polled); secondly, there is probably no chance that he will build a cohesive, consensus-based negotiating team and platform that could enjoy the support of all anti-Taliban Afghan factions and the civil society at large as part of intra-Afghan dialogue; thirdly, even worse is adopting a position based on consensus taking in view of internal divisions. Like its role in Afghan-US track, Ashraf Ghani government will continue to be a spoiler in intra-Afghan dialogue track.

The key is at some stage the US has to intervene to stop (Ashraf Ghani) government becoming part of the problem—you can put wheels on a bear but that doesn't make it a motorcar so true of Ashraf Ghani government devoid of support of other non-Taliban stakeholders.

A fundamental point that needs repeating, is, already, the Taliban are emboldened and may not accept any pressure to concede.

There is a long way to go and Washington needs to go all the way. Pakistan should continue to wholeheartedly facilitate both tracks of Afghan reconciliation (i,e, Taliban and US track and intra-Afghan track) but avoid politically and strategically reinforcing US policy follies and bending the Taliban to the point of annoyance.

Jan Achakzai 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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