Hopes for peace in Afghanistan rose sharply in recent months as the U.S., after years of pursuing military victory, accepted the general consensus that the conflict could be ended only through a political solution and, after some hesitation, agreed to talk directly to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Afghanistan (TTA). Following a period of discord generated by U.S. pressure and bullying, Pakistan agreed to facilitate the Afghan peace process.
The Khalilzad Process
The Trump Administration appointed an Afghan-born veteran diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad, as its Special Envoy to promote what he has called a “Roadmap for Afghanistan’s Future”. Ambassador Khalilzad has conducted active shuttle diplomacy with the Ghani Government and other U.S. partners, including Pakistan. He has also held three rounds of direct talks with the Afghan Taliban; first, with their representatives in Doha; next with these representatives and the 5 TTA leaders released from Guantanamo; and the last, with the Doha-based representatives plus high level Taliban members whose participation was facilitated by Pakistan in talks held during December 2018 in Abu Dhabi.
At this last round, the TTA delegation met over three days with Khalilzad and his team and separately with the representatives of the U.S., Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, although the National Unity Government (NUG) sent a delegation to Abu Dhabi, the Taliban team refused to meet them.
Even before the Abu Dhabi meetings, Khalilzad had conveyed to Pakistan and other interlocutors, that the U.S. administration was in a hurry to reach an agreement on the framework of a political settlement by the summer of 2019 (no doubt due to Trump’s desire to remove Afghanistan as an issue in the 2020 Presidential elections). However, Trump’s impatience with the Pentagon proposed Afghanistan strategy, announced in August 2017, resulted in the White House announcement – even as the Abu Dhabi talks were winding up – that the U.S. would reduce half of its (14,000) troops in Afghanistan. This appears to have come as a surprise to everyone, including Khalilzad, the Pentagon, U.S. allies and the Kabul Government.
Pakistan has welcomed the announcement. The Taliban have been publicly cautious but privately triumphant. The NUG has expressed private fear and public bravado.
Most experts believe that the Trump announcement will strengthen the Taliban; precipitate chaos in Kabul and inspire jockeying for advantage by regional powers.
It is likely that the Pentagon and the U.S. “establishment”, who are anxious to “save face” and avoid subverting the negotiating process, will issue a policy “clarification” that the Trump troop reduction announcement does not imply a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Khalilzad process, when resumed, will operate under the shadow of the perception that the Trump Administration has decided to withdraw as soon as possible from Afghanistan with or without a political settlement.
Since August 2017, the Trump Administration sought to secure Pakistan’s cooperation on Afghanistan through a series of punitive and coercive steps. A desultory dialogue produced few results. After the Pakistan PM’s strong retort to fresh insults from Trump last November, the latter wrote to acknowledge Pakistan’s sacrifices and sought its help in promoting a political solution in Afghanistan. Pakistan thereafter facilitated the participation of credible TTA leaders in the Abu Dhabi talks.
Following these talks, and the surprise Trump announcement of U.S. troop reductions, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister embarked on a speed visit to consult the Ghani Government and to brief Iran, China and Russia on the Abu Dhabi round of talks.
Notwithstanding the Trump announcement, Pakistan and other regional powers understand that it would be preferable if an end to the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan came about through a negotiated political settlement, which can restore some measure of peace and stability, rather than a unilateral U.S. withdrawal, which is likely to result in prolonging Afghanistan’s civil war. But Islamabad has apparently also realized that the U.S.’ ability to forge a deal has diminished because of the momentum of the TTA insurgency and Trump’s desire to exit from Afghanistan as soon as possible. A sustainable political settlement will require the active support of the regional powers: China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Elements of a Political Settlement
Irrespective of the structure, location and pace of the negotiating process, a political settlement in Afghanistan would need to encompass: one, an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban (on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan); two, an agreement between the Taliban (TTA), the NUG)and other relevant Afghan parties on the future structure of governance and power sharing within Afghanistan; and three, an agreement among regional powers to respect and support the political settlement evolved between the Afghan parties.
The U.S.-Taliban negotiations have commenced. But the fighting has also intensified – to gain advantage in the talks. The U.S. is targeting Taliban field commanders, who are considered the biggest obstacle to a political settlement. However, aerial attacks have multiplied civilian casualties. The Afghan forces are under unrelenting Taliban pressure.
Khalilzad had reportedly offered to discuss a timetable for withdrawal with the Taliban, provided they agree to negotiate Afghanistan’s future governance with the NUG. The U.S. also proposed a six-month ceasefire to facilitate negotiations. The Taliban reportedly countered that they would accept the ceasefire if a person nominated by them was appointed interim head of state and the arrangement was guaranteed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
It should be anticipated that to regain the credibility and negotiating leverage lost by the Trump’s announcement, the U.S. and Kabul, apart from clarifying that U.S. troop reductions will not be unconditional, are likely to intensify their military operations against the TTA and, in the immediate future, adopt a tougher stance in further talks. Ghani’s appointment of “hardliners” Amrullah Saleh and Asadullah Khalid as Interior and Defense Ministers is a clear indication of this.
Irrespective of the intensity of military operations, and the format and pace of further talks, there is so far a fundamental divergence between the U.S. and the Taliban on the purpose of their talks. The U.S. sees these talks as a stepping stone to a dialogue between the TTA and the NUG on the future political dispensation in Afghanistan. The Taliban see this engagement as the means to secure the withdrawal of foreign forces. They have not given any commitment to talk at any stage to the NUG (which is dismissed as a U.S. puppet). If Trump is really in a hurry to leave, the U.S. may well dispense with its condition for TTA-NUG talks and conclude a withdrawal agreement directly with the TTA.
Another issue is the reported U.S. desire to retain a “small” counter-terrorism military presence in Afghanistan (in Bagram?) to prevent the resurgence of a terrorist threat to the U.S. “homeland” from Afghanistan. There were reports after the first U.S.-TTA interaction in Doha last July that such a counter-terrorism presence could be considered by the Taliban once they were a sovereign government. However, unless U.S. “credibility” is restored, the Taliban are likely to resist such a post-agreement counter-terrorism presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan. This may be also opposed by some regional powers: Iran, Russia and perhaps China. However, a small and temporary counter-terrorism presence may serve to ensure observance of a political settlement and prevent a revived civil war in Afghanistan.
In any case, an understanding will have to be reached among the Afghan parties and external powers on ways to address the threat posed by the several terrorist organizations which are present and operate in and from Afghanistan including Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), Al-Qaeda, TTP, ETIM, and IMU, etc. This is now the primary concern of the U.S. as well of Russia and China. It requires further and close consideration by both the Afghan parties and external powers.
The core challenge to a political settlement and sustainable peace in Afghanistan so far has been the wide gulf between the positions of the Afghan parties.
For several years now, neither the NUG nor the TTA were ready to make the accommodations needed to reach a political settlement. The NUG, with U.S. support, envisaged that the final settlement would be the TTA or some of its components “reconciling” with the NUG.
However, despite vague references to national reconciliation, the TTA has never committed itself to a power sharing arrangement with Kabul. The TTA remains confident it can regain power, or at least a dominant role in a future government, once foreign forces withdraw. Its resistance to sharing power may have become even stronger after Trump’s unilateral troop reduction announcement.
The NUG became flexible about sharing power once it was clear that the U.S. would leave Afghanistan, sooner rather than later. In recent weeks, flexibility turned to desperation as the realization dawned that the U.S. may be willing to make an accommodation with the TTA even without the NUG to secure an early withdrawal. However, Trump’s announcement, paradoxically, may have revived the NUG’s determination to fight for survival (since the TTA has refused negotiations and the U.S. may be willing to leave without an inter-Afghan political settlement).
The postponement of the Presidential elections scheduled for April 2019 has circumvented an additional complication in the way of an intra-Afghan dialogue.
The TTA leaders would be wise to agree to a dialogue with the NUG and other relevant Afghan parties. A perception that the TTA is seeking complete control of Afghanistan is likely to evoke wide opposition including from those Afghans currently outside the NUG. It could once again divide Afghanistan between the Pashtun south and east and a Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara-Shia coalition (a revived Northern Alliance).
If direct talks are not acceptable to the TTA, other modalities could be used, such as proximity talks, a multilateral format (QCG plus), a Loya Jirga, etc. The appointment of an interim government or head of government accompanied by a prolonged ceasefire could create the political avenue and temporal space for an intra-Afghan dialogue. An intra-Afghan settlement could be negotiated in stages, starting with a “framework” or roadmap which could be elaborated in agreed steps and sequence, linked, if needed, with foreign troop withdrawal and other elements of a broader agreement.
An important confidence building measure could be a joint Afghan National Army (ANA), Coalition and TTA operation against IS-K and other terrorist organizations in Afghanistan.
Role of External Powers
Obviously, external powers will play a vital role, positive or negative, in Afghanistan’s journey towards peace (or another war). All external powers could be expected to support a political settlement so long as it is balanced (i.e., it does not empower the friends and affiliates of their adversaries while excluding their friends). Such external political and economic support will become more crucial as and when the U.S.-NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
The position of the U.S. is of course critical. The next few days will probably see a U.S. clarification of the Trump troop reduction announcement to restore U.S. credibility and negotiating leverage. However, if the U.S. establishment fails to convince Trump, the U.S. could confirm the unilateral withdrawal and the perception that it will leave Afghanistan with or without a political settlement.
However, irrespective of the manner of its withdrawal, it will be essential to secure some basic commitments from the U.S., including for continued long-term financial and development assistance to Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s first priority is to prevent revived chaos and civil war in Afghanistan. A political settlement is essential to avoid this. Pakistan can and should continue to exercise its influence with the TTA to facilitate this. To this end, Islamabad should maintain its dialogue with the NUG and reach out to those Afghan groups which are neither in the TTA or the NUG.
For the same reason, agreement on a small and temporary CT presence – U.S., UN or OIC – would be helpful to suppress future terrorism from Afghanistan and prevent another civil war there.
However, in exchange for such facilitation, Pakistan should expect certain specific concessions from the U.S. including support for an “acceptable” IMF package, removal from the FATF list, release of blocked reimbursements and equipment, elimination of TTP and BLA safe havens in Afghanistan, and repatriation of Afghan refugees.
Iran has the capacity to support or disrupt a political settlement in Afghanistan. Due to its current tensions with the U.S. over Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and the nuclear issue, Tehran may not be disposed to facilitate such a settlement and an orderly U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan (and China) may need to persuade Iran to be cooperative inter alia by assuring that a political settlement will accommodate Iran’s friends in Afghanistan.
Russia is mainly concerned about the threat from Chechen, Uzbek and other terrorists, operating under the banner of IS-K in Afghanistan. Moscow seems convinced that the U.S. has deliberately facilitated the emergence of IS-K in Afghanistan, especially its deployments along its northern borders. Russia is making efforts on its own track to promote an Afghan political settlement (the Moscow format). It has established a relationship with the TTA. But it may also keep its old relationships with the likes of Dostum and other elements of the Northern Alliance and expect to play an influential role the process for a political settlement and in a post-American Afghanistan.
China too is concerned about ETIM and Uighur terrorism from Afghanistan and the threat which terrorists or hostile powers (U.S. and/or India) may pose to its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and CPEC, its South Asian component.
China could play a most positive role in promoting a political environment conducive for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and in stabilizing it and the entire region through enhanced investments in infrastructure, agriculture, mining and other sectors and connecting the regional economies through the BRI/CPEC projects.
Given the current Sino-U.S. trade and security tensions, it may be left to Pakistan’s diplomacy to promote consensus on a larger Chinese economic and political role in Afghanistan’s transition even as Islamabad facilitates the orderly withdrawal of U.S.-NATO forces from there.
Since 2001, India’s “influence” in Afghanistan has derived from the U.S. presence and the installation in power of its old friends in the Northern Alliance. This era will end with the U.S. withdrawal. New Delhi’s next aim will be to prevent a political settlement and Taliban dominance in Kabul. While Pakistan promotes a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, one of its urgent goals must be to eliminate – diplomatically or otherwise – the TTP and BLA terrorism sponsored by Indian intelligence from Afghanistan.
Hopefully, Ambassador Khalilzad will be authorized to continue his diplomatic effort to evolve a political settlement. If not, Pakistan may need to commence a dialogue process under the auspices of the OIC and with the support of the U.S., China and Russia. Either way, the dialogue could be structured into the three streams discussed above: U.S.-TTA, intra-Afghan, and relevant external powers.
The early objectives could be: one, agreement on a ceasefire to facilitate negotiations and foreign troop withdrawals; two, opening of an intra-Afghan dialogue, including by appointment of an interim government or through another negotiating mechanism; three, discussion of measures to prevent the resurgence of terrorism from Afghanistan; and four, commitments of future financial and economic support to Afghanistan from the major powers and the international community.
The writer has served in the Pakistan Foreign Service for over 40 years. He was Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York; Permanent Representative to the UN and WTO in Geneva; Additional Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to the European Economic Community in Belgium and Luxembourg.
E-mail: [email protected]
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