Afghan Imbroglio- Options for Pakistan, US, China and Taliban
Lt Gen (Retd) Tariq Khan
“The talks are dead”’ says Trump. Do the Americans intend to stay on and for what purpose or do they intend withdrawing without any settlement with the Taliban? In the former, it implies that the US would have to generate a presence of at least 15000 troops to sustain operations in Afghanistan with any hope of bringing about sustainable peace. On the other hand, there may well be the possibility of staying on in Afghanistan with a limited presence, providing support to the ANA, in the hope that the ANA will eventually establish order. A third possibility could be that the US feels it could sustain a presence in collaboration with another party, where India alone comes to mind. The last possibility – Indian commitment to providing troops on ground, though unlikely, could lead to another Sri Lankan style debacle for India, if it ever comes to that. Yet, there remains another farfetched thought; that maybe the Northern Alliance, fearing annihilation post US withdrawal, have offered the US permanent bases in Northern Afghanistan if the US facilitates the division of the country on ethnic lines. This would secure the Northern Alliance’s future and the US would retain presence in Afghanistan, which they were always hoping for. We can discard this last option only because the third party, i.e. the Taliban are not likely to allow this to happen and so far have deliberately enhanced access and control of the Northern regions. So, looking at the first two options, the question arises, can US public sentiment sustain such an open-ended deployment for an extended war? It appears that this a doubtful probability and it is more likely that US presence may remain restricted to a limited number of troops in support of the ANA. For how long and what effect – no one yet knows. However, in this event, the Taliban are likely to go on to a major offensive by next spring in which the cohesion of the ANA will be severely tested. It appears that US troops will eventually have to withdraw – either under duress or then through a negotiated settlement – most likely a negotiated settlement.
So, in the end, if it has to be a negotiated settlement all over again, and that too borne out of Taliban military initiatives in the field, why would Trump state that the talks are dead? It seems that the hawks in the US, egged on by a combination of Indians and the sitting Afghan Government, managed to convince Trump that he was giving in too easily and that he needs to take a stand against the Taliban. The original agreement focused on two issues, i.e. a US withdrawal with time lines and a Taliban promise of not allowing the territory to be used for terrorist activity. The latter point is an apparent face-saving statement with hardly any implications as far as the Taliban are concerned and meaningless in its practical manifestation. When the Taliban do not control all of Afghanistan, how can they give such a guarantee; or is the US intending to hand over the country, government and administration to the Taliban regardless? In the meanwhile, the sticking points appeared to be a Taliban refusal to bring about an immediate ceasefire, include the Afghan Government in the negotiations, accepting the Constitution in its present form or agreeing to general elections scheduled for September. The US was aware of the Taliban inflexibility in matters that they did not wish to concede to, yet they continued negotiations with a jubilant Zalmay Khalizad announcing time and again that peace was around the corner. Well the talks are dead and some say it was because of the dead US soldier in Kabul, others say it was because of Taliban intransigency, yet some feel that Trump had a change of heart. We do not know at the moment for certain what exactly was the cause for the break down but one thing is certain, it was an outcome of a deliberate process and not a knee-jerk reaction.
If the decision was a product of a deliberate plan, then the factors that constructed such a plan must be examined. One could be the continual argument by the US administration that the Taliban have failed to give any concessions and that calling off military operations was a bad decision. Then, Indian fears of a sustained presence in Afghanistan despite $3 Billion investment would become highly doubtful after a US withdrawal. That the Chinese and the Russians may step into the vacuum is another universal fear. Also, The Afghan Government, would of course insist that by abandoning them the US has turned its back on the democratic values that the Afghan Government was instilling including emancipation of women etc. There also was the famous paper written by the Atlantic Think Tank, where seven US diplomats collectively confirmed that the US had lost the War. The humiliation of military defeat that the US military would have to live with in the times to come was maybe another reason. The defence contractors also could have contributed towards such a decision since they were to lose out the most. However, it is probably a combination of all these matters together that caused the talks to collapse.
As far as the Taliban are concerned, they have done exactly what one would have expected them to do – over reach. Not realizing what they were being handed over in a plate, they pushed their luck and most likely went over-board. It is a pattern of almost all insurgencies that when given a concession they feel that the other side is weak and can be further exploited. It is then that the hand is over-played. Nevertheless, the Taliban presence on ground and their military ascendancy as opposed to the ANA, was gradually getting them the upper hand that they were searching for on the negotiation table. The US had already abandoned the Afghan Government when they decided to open talks with the Taliban and as such the Taliban had taken it for granted that they were winning the war. The only two real spoilers in the peace talks were the Indians and the sitting Afghan Government with the latter being a rare case of a Government requiring foreign occupation to prop it up. Only these two had a lot to lose by a negotiated settlement between the US and the Taliban. This is specially so if one is so naïve to really believe that the US were interested in leaving a stable Afghanistan or that the Taliban would find themselves bound by any commitments they may have made to the US. The result would be a dismantling of the ANA, ouster of the sitting Government and the expulsion of the Indians.
Here one wonders how Pakistan was looking at the situation. For starters, it was in Pakistan’s interest that the US succeed in Afghanistan and that they bring some sort of method to the madness. However, this changed over time and the US busied itself in installing India in Pakistan’s backyard after having guaranteed that they would not and then also supported the TTP in Kunar to put pressure on the Pakistani Government. India quickly ingratiated itself with the Northern Alliance, a major influence in the ANA and the Afghan Government; so much so, that the Afghan President, found it prudent to snub Pakistan’s offer of $500 Million in Amritsar, while he fawned and scrapped before the jubilant squeals of the Indian crowd. Pakistan suspected that the US was averse to Pakistan and China working in close coordination on CPEC and furthermore that they wanted to remain in close proximity of Pakistani nuclear facilities. Soon it was strongly felt that it was in Pakistan’s interest that the US exit Afghanistan, especially after Mattis declared the CPEC route to be one going through disputed territory and after experiencing a growing Indian belligerence in the region. This Indian aggressive posture concluded in the Pulwama incident in which the US did not seem perturbed by the aggression and in fact appeared to have even encouraged it. To have now expected Pakistan to take a hostile posture against the Afghan Taliban who were by now the obvious next rulers of the country was unrealistic and was pushing Pakistan into the wrong corner. Having blamed Pakistan for not doing enough, and having exhausted the appetite to stay in Afghanistan, the US decided to once again ask Pakistan to facilitate a negotiated settlement and after almost a yearlong activity, it now appears the process has come to a halt.
The implication of halting the negotiations has been celebrated by some as if it will lead to the extermination of the Taliban. It will not. It will lead to the Taliban and the US both jockeying for an upper hand till the next inevitable round of negotiations. This would amount to heightened violence in which the greatest sufferers would be the Afghan people but in the end one side or the other would agree to come to terms. It implies an eventual retreat by a cowed down US or an agreement to talk to the Afghan Government in a future settlement by a suitably chastised Taliban. What is certain is that it will not be both but one or the other. The question now is who has the patience, the time, the depth to absorb the inevitable heightened violence, the rising cost of war and open-ended uncertainty. Will the US succumb to its own political pressures or will the Taliban be beaten into submission?
For Pakistan, it is best to wait it out rather than show an over eagerness to be a facilitator. The end-state Pakistan desires or should hope for: a defined, fenced border and the return of the Afghan refugees which are the most immediate objectives. Thereon removing India and having Afghanistan as a stable neighbor without safe havens for hostile militants could future goals. With the US stumped in Afghanistan, it becomes irrelevant to the region. Restoring its presence in the region could/may have a huge benefit for Pakistan. Offering them a parallel CPEC style activity would be a win-win situation and this could be the third objective. First it would break Chinese monopoly, second it would enhance development, thirdly it would make the US an economic stakeholder and finally it would allow the US to remain relevant in the region at the behest of Pakistan. Afghanistan’s economic growth, and opportunity building could be done through the Americans and thus regional connectivity would increase giving Pakistan multiple directions to follow, i.e. Torkham as well as Kunjrab rather than just the latter. Pakistan can facilitate Afghanistan’s future growth and sustainable economic activity, i.e. Let the US expand economic activity straddling both Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, there by bringing about some commonality of strategic interest, cohesion in the region and stability in Afghanistan.
The Author is Former Corps Commander of Pakistan Army.