The eighth round of U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar may result in finalization of agreements on a Taliban pledge not to allow Afghan territory to be used as a staging ground for terrorism and a U.S. commitment to withdraw foreign forces from Afghanistan.
In May this year, the U.S. Special Envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, pronounced that agreements were also needed on two other items: an intra-Afghan dialogue and a comprehensive ceasefire and “nothing was agreed until everything was agreed”. But the Taliban remained adamant that they would not talk to the Kabul government which they consider a U.S. puppet. The talks were thus stalemated.
During his recent brief flyby visit to Kabul, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated a subtle yet important shift by announcing that the U.S. and the Taliban are very close to an agreement on counter-terrorism and troop withdrawal (without a specific timetable). He declared the “the hour of peace had come” and expressed the hope of reaching an Afghan peace settlement by September 1, 2019. The U.S., he said, “would not negotiate on behalf of the Afghans”. Secretary Pompeo did not repeat the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” mantra.
The U.S. no doubt wants to announce a politically acceptable end to its Afghan War before the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections. Pompeo’s pronouncement was obviously designed to propel Kabul and the other fractious Afghan parties to find a path to enter into dialogue with the Taliban as soon as possible. This may accelerate the peace process.
However, despite Khalilzad’s diplomatic skills, there are a host of complex issues which will need to be addressed and resolved to achieve outcomes that are seen as a successful or at least politically acceptable end to America’s longest war.
Although Khalilzad has stated that agreements on troop withdrawals and counter-terrorism have been agreed in draft form with the Taliban, some issues that probably remain to be resolved are: one, the timetable for withdrawal of foreign forces (6 to 18 months have been mentioned); two, the number of troops that the U.S. would leave behind for counter-terrorism operations (5000?); three, whether troop withdrawals would commence only after an “internationally accepted settlement” has been reached, as Khalilzad has observed, or if withdrawals may commence before that (following a U.S.-Taliban agreement), as Pompeo’s recent announcements implied.
The Taliban have reportedly agreed that after a settlement they will not allow Afghan territory to be used for export of terrorism. This is not a difficult commitment for the Taliban. They have already accepted a clear break with Al-Qaeda. They are also engaged in a bloody confrontation with Daesh/IS and its associates, which now include IMU, ETIM, TTP, HuA. The U.S. may want to expand the list of terrorist groups, for example, to include the pro-Kashmiri parties (LeT and JeM) and the pro-Iranian groups like Hezbollah and other Shia militias.
Reportedly, the Taliban have agreed that a counter-terrorism (CT) force could be stationed in Afghanistan if authorized by the post-settlement Afghan Government. Details of this agreement would have to include: the size of this CT force, its location (perhaps Bagram?), the rules of engagement and whether it would be composed entirely of U.S. troops, or U.S.-NATO contingents or a (UN endorsed) multinational force.
A continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan, post-settlement, even if for counter-terrorism, is bound to generate considerable regional skepticism. Would the presence be designed for counter-terrorism or for power projection? Pakistan and other regional states would need to assess whether the deployed CT capabilities pose a threat to their national security and what sort of assurances are needed to obviate such potential threats.
Despite U.S. and Western insistence, and requests from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other “friends”, the Taliban have firmly rejected talks with the National Unity Government. To circumvent this impasse and insert itself in the peace process, Moscow took the initiative to convene two informal meetings to which Afghans of all political stripes were invited. The Ghani government did not participate. The U.S. sponsored a broad-based informal group of Afghans to hold talks with the Taliban in Qatar; but the latter rejected the size and composition of that group. More recently, Pakistan invited Afghan opposition leaders for an informal dialogue in Bhurban – a conference titled Lahore Process. But the Taliban did not participate.
To enable the Afghans to negotiate a political settlement among themselves, it is essential to first agree on the modality of an intra-Afghan dialogue, the composition of the non-Taliban negotiators, and the timing and venue of the talks. The efforts made so far and the pressure applied by the U.S. set deadline (September 1) may enable an agreement to be reached on these process issues very soon.
The intra-Afghan dialogue, whenever it gets underway, will have to address a number of complex questions:
One, how should power be shared in a post-settlement Afghanistan? Would it be on a territorial basis? The Taliban currently hold half of the country and by the time an agreement is reached, they may hold more. Would a territorial power distribution be supplemented or supplanted by a distribution of executive power at the center and in the provinces? How and in what proportion should the ministries and other important posts be distributed? In this context, how relevant are the September 28 Presidential elections and the elections held recently to the Afghan Parliament (which were opposed by the Taliban)?
Two, after an intra-Afghan agreement, how would security be maintained in Afghanistan? Would the Taliban and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) remain responsible for security in their respective areas of control? Would they be eventually integrated, and if so, on what criteria/basis? Would other private and irregular militias and local forces be disbanded or integrated?
Three, given Afghanistan’s financial dependence, would the U.S. and the international community continue to provide financial and development assistance to a post-settlement Afghanistan? Would such assistance be provided to regions/areas controlled by the Taliban?
Four, who would accept or reject the continued U.S./international counter-terrorism presence in Afghanistan: the intra-Afghan dialogue or a new government that would emerge from the political settlement?
Five, whether the present (U.S.-formulated) Afghan constitution should be replaced or amended? Would provisions relating to the protection of minorities and women be preserved?
The U.S. favored a cessation of hostilities to accompany the talks with Taliban, citing the “positive” experience of last year’s Eid-ul-Fitr ceasefire. The Taliban rejected this. They obviously feel they have the military momentum and wish to press their advantage. They may also fear that if they accept a ceasefire now, they may lose the support of many of their commanders who believe they can win militarily and are opposed to negotiations. These commanders could defect to rival groups such as Daesh. According to press reports, in the opening round of the talks with the U.S. as a condition for accepting a ceasefire, the Taliban asked for international guarantees from Saudi Arabia and other “friends” which were not forthcoming.
For its part, the U.S. too has intensified its aerial attacks and offensive operations to “shape the political environment”, in the words of General Austin S. Miller, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
A comprehensive ceasefire may be agreed once the Taliban believe that they cannot make further quick military gains; or feel they can achieve their objective (of emerging as the dominant force in Afghanistan) through the negotiating process.
The Regional Dimension
Several regional powers, including Pakistan, have “equities” in Afghanistan. A sustainable settlement will need to accommodate their ethnic, religious or political “affiliates” and their concerns about the presence of Daesh/IS in Afghanistan close to their borders.
Iran could emerge as a wild card in the Afghan peace process. It has retained considerable influence with its traditional friends in Afghanistan (the Tajiks, Hazaras and other Shias) and acquired considerable influence with others, including the Taliban. These links with the Taliban have grown substantially in recent years, especially as Pakistan came under extreme pressure to “arrest, expel or compel” the Taliban. (Mullah Mansoor was coming from Iran when he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Balochistan).
In the context of the current U.S.-Iran tensions, Tehran could attempt to disrupt the Afghan peace process and U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Russia and its Central Asian friends are also important players in Afghanistan. On the one hand, they have ethnic friends – the Uzbeks and Tajiks – who will be part of the intra-Afghan power equation. On the other, several terrorist groups from Central Asia – such as IMU and the Chechens – are now part of Daesh/IS, located in Afghanistan, and pose a threat to the entire Central Asian region.
Both Russia and Iran have openly accused the U.S. of supporting these IS-linked groups and expressed concern at their deployments close to their borders. Both have established relations with the Taliban to combat their common enemy – the IS.
Moscow has assumed an active role in promoting an intra-Afghan dialogue. It will seek to ensure its imprint on the Afghan peace process and its final outcome.
India entertains deep reservations about the U.S. decision to talk directly to the Taliban. It will be deeply affected by the outcome of the Afghan peace process but does not have a seat at the table. India’s former diplomats have asserted that the world should not set any store by the Taliban’s assurances not to allow terrorism from Afghan soil. And, they fear that U.S. withdrawal will leave Afghan government forces at the mercy of the Taliban. They did not mention that a settlement could also end India’s covert operations against Pakistan from Afghan territory. India would play the role of a spoiler in the Afghan peace process if it could do so without irking its U.S. ally. It may yet find ways of doing so.
In the Afghan peace process, China is the “elephant in the room”. In a post-settlement Afghanistan, China could make a major contribution to its economic and infrastructure development through investment, trade and integration of Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative. The degree of Afghanistan’s reliance on China will depend on the extent of America’s continued political and financial commitment to a post-settlement Afghanistan. China’s support, in turn, will be dependent on the political composition and affiliations of the power structures that emerge in Afghanistan through the negotiating process.
Four years ago, China was brought into the peace process in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) mechanism. However, it has been excluded from a direct role in more recent efforts to initiate the Afghan peace process. China has developed substantive relations with both the Taliban and the Kabul government. (It recently hosted the Taliban again in Beijing.) China has attempted to promote dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban, and to ease Pakistan-Kabul tensions. It would be in Pakistan’s strategic interest to bring China into the Afghan negotiating process as soon as possible.
In any case, the main regional players will need to be brought into the negotiating process at some stage, even if it is merely to endorse a settlement evolved between the U.S., the Taliban and other Afghan parties. The QCG which includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the U.S., is an available mechanism which could be enlarged to include Iran, Russia and the Central Asian states. India’s participation should remain a red line for Pakistan.
Pakistan’s Role and Objectives
As has been oft stated, apart from the Afghans, Pakistan has the highest stakes in the restoration of peace and security in Afghanistan.
Pakistan needs a peace which can serve four essential objectives: one, end cross-border terrorism, particularly the attacks by the Indian-sponsored TTP and the BLA; two, ease U.S. hostility and economic and political pressure against Pakistan; three, facilitate the repatriation of Afghan refugees; and four, enable the execution of connectivity projects with Central Asia.
In August 2017, U.S. President Trump announced a new and coercive policy towards Pakistan. Threats were held out against Pakistan, the CSF reimbursements were blocked and economic pressure intensified, including through the FATF, to secure Pakistan’s cooperation on Afghanistan.
At first, the U.S. demanded direct action by Pakistan against the Taliban “safe havens” and leaders which would enable a U.S. military victory and Taliban capitulation. Subsequently, the U.S. accepted that the priority aim was a “political settlement” between the Taliban and the Kabul government. Pakistan was asked to “arrest, expel or compel” the Taliban to accept reconciliation with the Kabul government. Later, the U.S. agreed to also join in Kabul’s talks with the Taliban. Finally, faced with the threat of a possible unilateral withdrawal announcement by an unpredictable President, the U.S. requested Pakistan to facilitate its direct talks with credible Taliban representatives.
Pakistan responded positively to the final request and facilitated the direct U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar and once in UAE. Most importantly, reportedly at U.S.’ request, Pakistan released the imprisoned Mullah Baradar, the former deputy of the Taliban Founder, Mullah Omar, to lead the Taliban delegation in the Qatar talks.
Pakistan has remained involved indirectly in the U.S.-Taliban talks. It has also participated in the informal meetings among Afghans convened by Russia and the Central Asians. More recently, Pakistan hosted most of the Afghan “opposition” leaders in Bhurban, although the Taliban did not participate. These meetings were followed by President Ghani’s formal visit to Islamabad to advance bilateral cooperation as agreed under the so-called APAPPS process (i.e., the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity). Yet, despite these Pakistani gestures, Ghani seems skeptical about negotiating peace with the Taliban. Nor does he appear to have shed his suspicions about Pakistan’s sincerity in desiring a broad-based Afghan government. Certainly, given the U.S.-Taliban process, and the divisive upcoming presidential elections, Ghani’s future is uncertain.
For Pakistan too, facilitation of the U.S.-Taliban talks has not produced any tangible reciprocal concessions from Washington apart from the occasional pat on the back. The U.S. has taken no visible actions against the TTP and BLA safe havens in Afghanistan; offered no support on the monitoring and fencing of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; made no offers on Afghan refugee repatriation; has not released the counter-terrorism equipment promised to Pakistan; and, has not resumed the reimbursement of the CSF money.
On the contrary, Washington has maintained economic pressure on Pakistan through the FATF and IMF. And the scope of U.S. demands has expanded to calls for action against the proscribed pro-Kashmiri groups (LeT and JeM) in order to appease its Indian ally.
Islamabad should remain vigilant. While concern has been widely voiced about Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan if the Taliban emerge as the dominant force, the U.S., under the guidance of Ambassador Khalilzad, is quite capable of co-opting the Taliban as its future partners in Afghanistan through generous offers of money and weapons. And once its goals of withdrawal and political transition in Afghanistan are achieved, there is every possibility that the U.S. will revert to a hostile stance towards Pakistan designed to achieve its South Asia strategy in which India is to play the part of the regional hegemon and Pakistan is to halt support to the Kashmiri freedom struggle and accept constraints on its nuclear and missile programs.
Thus, Pakistan is obliged to play a hard-nosed game in the Afghan peace process to ensure that its long-term strategic interests in Afghanistan and the region are not compromised. To this end, Islamabad must retain close ties and ample leverage over the Taliban and other Afghans.
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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