"The prospect for progress could be an illusion"

February 3, 2019

-- Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, former diplomat

The News on Sunday: How hopeful are you about peace in Afghanistan after the recent framework deal signed between the US and the Taliban?

Ashraf Jehangir Qazi: The prospects for progress may appear to have improved somewhat. But this is probably an illusion. The Taliban’s terms are fairly uncompromising which could make it impossible for the US to disguise its defeat. President Trump wants to get out of Afghanistan as an essential ingredient of his re-election strategy. But withdrawal on terms demanded by the Taliban, as revealed by their spokesman, would almost certainly lead to the rapid disintegration of the Afghan security forces and the regime in Kabul.

According to the spokesman the Taliban "did not accept US calls for ceasefire and negotiations with the Kabul administration. The US suggested a ceasefire during the American troop withdrawal. We said we will not talk to the Kabul administration until all foreign troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan." According to the Taliban, the US agreed to withdraw all forces and not to seek military bases in Afghanistan.

For Kabul to accept such terms would be political suicide. Moreover, it is unlikely the US military and political establishment would ever accept such terms for such an ignominious exit from Afghanistan. Taliban demands may be an initial bargaining stance which could be modified during subsequent rounds of talks although that would risk a split in its ranks. Pakistan would be expected to moderate Taliban demands.

TNS: Notwithstanding the announcement to pull out troops from Afghanistan in eighteen months and engaging in talks with the Taliban, what are the larger US aims in Afghanistan?

AJQ: The US has decided that containing China and Russia is more important than the so-called war on terror which it believes it has largely won. It wants the Taliban to commit to ensuring that Afghan territory will not be used against the US and its friends and it will not allow groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda to operate from Afghanistan. This is no problem for the Taliban which has never been interested in exporting its ideology. Moreover, making such a demand of the Taliban is tantamount to conceding at least a share of the government of Afghanistan.

The US also wants Taliban approval for military intelligence bases in Afghanistan to keep an eye on developments in Central Asia as part of its larger strategy to contain the influence of Russia and China. As noted the Taliban have rejected this. But this is the new Great Game or the Eurasian Game that is likely to determine the power map of Asia for the rest of the century. The US would not like to see Afghanistan integrated into BRI or CPEC which could provide China access to Afghanistan’s strategic location and mineral wealth, including rare earth minerals that are reportedly worth trillions of dollars over the coming decades. The US will seek to exploit memories of Soviet imperialism and fears of Chinese expansion among the Central Asian countries. In this game the US would not like to see its influence in Afghanistan dwindle to non-strategic proportions.

TNS: What about the countervailing forces within the US and has Trump as president prevailed upon them all?

AJQ: Trump wants to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. He is, however, opposed by the "strategic community" in the US which includes the National Security Agency, the Pentagon; the State Department, the CIA, the corporate sector; Republican and even Democratic opinion in Congress and the media; right-wing and even so-called liberal think tanks; etc. They know that the battle for supremacy in the Eurasian land mass from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, and down to the Indian Ocean and the so-called Indo-Pacific region, will determine who is "master of the universe" in the 21st century. Accordingly, they will not allow Trump to overlook the bigger picture. Moreover, despite his bluster, Trump is a weak president. Up to a point his generals will indulge him. But his political base is not big or united enough to face down the entire American establishment on an issue of such strategic importance. Trump’s own slogan of "America First" would be used against him if he tried to go it alone.

TNS: How is Pakistan playing its cards, having earlier released Mullah Baradar and now putting its weight behind the Zalmay Khalilzad-led peace process? What is Pakistan’s vision for the future government in Afghanistan?

AJQ: During the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistan managed to build up enormous Afghan goodwill at all levels throughout the country because of the assistance it rendered to the Jihad and the safe refuge it provided to almost 5 million Afghan refugees, which at one time were half the world refugee population. However, within the span of a few years this goodwill was frittered away because of the Afghan perception that Pakistan only trusted those Afghans who were willing to take orders from Islamabad. This included first Gulbadin Hekmatyar who destroyed Kabul and subsequently the Taliban whom Pakistan enabled to conquer Kabul and then the whole of Afghanistan over which they imposed one of the most draconian and medieval regimes in the name of Islam. The ordinary Afghan knew Pakistan would never accept such a regime for itself. This perception paved the way for India to rebuild its influence in Afghanistan at the expense of Pakistan after the Taliban were chased from power after 9/11. Pakistan played a very strong hand very badly.

However, 17 years later, Pakistan has another opportunity in Afghanistan. US arrogance and ignorance have messed up all its calculations and predictions. It has made it politically fatal for any Afghan party to be too closely associated with it. The US image has been sullied by atrocities and humiliations perpetrated upon the Afghan people. As a result, the Taliban have staged a spectacular revival, some say with the support of Pakistan. The US sought to exclude Pakistan from an Afghan peace process and recruit India in its place. This strategy has failed and to this extent Pakistan has played its hand well. However, it has also resulted in enormous US pressure, threats and sanctions. Pakistan must now play several balancing acts simultaneously. It needs to retain the confidence of Kabul without alienating the Taliban whom it has to both coax and coerce with incentives and disincentives into cooperating in a complex peace process. It has to lessen US hostility without undermining its strategic partnership with China.

TNS: Is Pakistan’s Afghan policy suited to the "broader set of domestic and external policies"? Where do Pakistan’s relations with India fit in?

AJQ: India-Pakistan relations are critically important for Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. If they play zero-sum games in Afghanistan, India will have the advantage. But if Pakistan relies on commonsense it can bring into play several advantages of adjacency, culture, language, local knowledge, etc. Pakistan, accordingly, should refrain from looking at Afghanistan exclusively through the prism of its relations with India. Without compromising its vital interests, Pakistan should be as large hearted as possible towards its Afghan brethren. This is also smart strategy.

Also read: Mending fences by making them

TNS: How do you look at the regional scene, with countries otherwise opposed to each other invested in Afghanistan? A war-torn, terror-prone Afghanistan suits none. How are the regional powers responding to the recent peace overtures?

AJQ: There are three essential layers to any Afghan peace process. First and foremost is the internal layer involving all the relevant parties, including the Kabul government, the Taliban, regional Afghan parties, including tribal and religious entities, urban constituencies, including women, etc. The second tier is that of neighbours and proximate regional countries. The US as the world’s only "universal neighbour" is also included. As far as possible a regional consensus built around non-interference in Afghanistan should be developed. This will be extremely challenging because of India-Pakistan, US-Iran, and US-China/Russia conflicts of interest. Can the UN play a facilitating and reconciliatory role? Yes, provided it is allowed to. The third tier involves the international community, especially donor countries, playing a reconstruction, rehabilitation, disarming demobilisation and reintegration (DDR), capacity and security building, and financially restorative role for a decade and more. If they shy away, BRI and CPEC will have to step into the breach.


The interview was conducted via email

"The prospect for progress could be an illusion"