By Arshad Sharif
Islamabad, March 16: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reads more like another imperialistic wish list to balance power dynamics in the war-ravaged country when the big powers and regional countries continue with their own complex timelines of proxy war and peace in Afghanistan.
The announced US road map of withdrawal from Afghanistan is contradicted by policy recommendations of the Afghanistan Study Group for the US government which proposes continued US presence in Afghanistan for a number of reasons. Recommendations of the Afghan Study Group, formed by the US Congress in December 2019, are contradictory to objectives outlined in Blinken’s letter for a hasty withdrawal of troops by May.
Blinken’s wish list mentions a series of efforts including a UN sponsored moot of regional countries with the desire to re-establish peace in Afghanistan by taking a leaf each from the Geneva Accord and Bonn Agreement. The fact that these plans failed to establish durable peace during the last almost forty years of war in Afghanistan is attributable to the big power games in the region and efforts by regional countries to have their share of spoils of war.
The foreign ministers and envoys of Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Iran and the United States may meet once again under the auspices of the United Nations to talk peace in Afghanistan without acknowledging how each player is battling for influence to bleed the other in Afghanistan.
Take for example the case of Pakistan and India. Pakistan recently submitted a dossier to the United Nations detailing how India is patronizing terrorist groups in Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan. Unless action is taken against multiple terror groups acting as state proxies in Afghanistan, peace will remain an elusive dream. The recent fifty-four-minute telephonic conversation of US Secretary of State with Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa discussed these issues in detail. Pakistan’s Army Chief in a candid and frank manner put forth proposals which make it prudent for the US to act on the advice rather than to demand do more from Pakistan.
An upcoming visit of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will convey the Pakistani concerns to India and push for peace between two nuclear neighbors to ensure that Afghanistan is not used as proxy battle ground.
It’s a multi-billion dollar defence equipment and defence acquisition question for the US to balance relations with Pakistan and India as it props up India as a counterweight to China in its Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean policies.
Moreover, a bigger question which begets an answer is how the United States will accept increasing Chinese influence in Afghanistan especially when its envoys are embarking on a publicly announced mission to bolster regional alliances against a rising China. One fails to find answer to these questions in the roadmap read out by US Secretary of State as a riot act to Afghan President.
Blinken’s letter fails to answer a host of complex questions relating to Afghan Taliban and why they will agree for a power sharing formula with beleaguered Afghan government representatives in Turkey when the same could not be worked out in numerous talks in inconclusive Doha agreement. What’s the magic wand in Turkey which could not work out in Qatar is yet to be spelled out in detail, especially when the US itself is announcing that ‘Taliban could make rapid territorial gains.’
The desire that President Ashraf Ghani and others will come around to work out a document with Taliban which has the same world view of constitutional governance in Afghanistan ignores ground realities of territorial control and ethnic and tribal distribution of power. Sharing power with those against whom you have fought for atleast two decades is a possibility as remote as finding sand dunes on K-2 summit.
So what is likely to take place in Afghanistan in the next few months and years?
The answer to this question is found in the Afghan Study Group policy recommendations which the Biden administration is more likely to follow as action plan in the next few years. US will ensure continued presence of troops and intelligence assets in Afghanistan.
Some of the important policy recommendations of Afghan Study Group are:
-An immediate diplomatic effort to extend the current May 2021 withdrawal date in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result.
-A recognition that, in addition to conducting counter terrorism operations and supporting the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, a key objective of the ongoing U.S. military presence is to help create conditions for an acceptable peace agreement. The February 2020 Doha agreement and the subsequent troop reductions clearly demonstrated that the United States is prepared to withdraw from Afghanistan. It should not, however, simply hand a victory to the Taliban.
-Continued basic support, with other donors, for the essential institutions of the Afghan state, including security institutions, while continuing to message our Afghan partners that this support is not open-ended and is conditioned on progress in the peace talks. A key consideration of the Study Group was that while we support the values of the Afghan government and recognize that its collapse could create significant problems for the region and beyond, U.S. decisions about America’s presence in Afghanistan cannot be held hostage to the di- visions, ineffectiveness, corruption, and shortsightedness that the Afghan government has too often displayed.
-Continued support for courageous members of Afghan civil society who have been instrumental in securing essential gains in rights, education, and health and who have been and will continue to be key in supporting a sustained peace.
-A reemphasis on diplomacy and negotiation, including a regional diplomatic strategy implemented over the longer term. There is broad regional support for a U.S. withdrawal that is responsible rather than precipitate and chaotic. Many countries in the region, especially Pakistan, have influence over the Taliban and other participants in the peace process. They should actively use this influence to make the peace process successful because they will ultimately benefit from its success.
-The harnessing and coordination of international support for a post-agreement Afghan state. Donors who, with us, have helped rebuild Afghanistan over the past twenty years are willing, based on certain conditions, to also sustain support for a post-agreement Afghan state. These efforts must be unified and coherent.
The letter by US Secretary of State to President Ashraf Ghani makes sense as a short-term road map of a few months to achieve long term objectives outlined by the Afghan Study Group.
Following is the text of the letter:
THE SECRETARY OF STATE
President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
Dear Mr. President:
I hope this letter finds you well. I will be sending a similar message to Chairman Abdullah.
I have appreciated the opportunity to speak with you and to consult regarding the United States’ review of its strategy in Afghanistan. Your and your team’s perspectives have added value to our deliberations.
I am writing today to provide you with an update on where we stand, the immediate road ahead, and the urgent leadership that President Biden and I ask of you in the coming weeks. Although we have not yet completed our review of the way ahead, we have reached an initial conclusion that the best way to advance our shared interests is to do all we can to accelerate peace talks and to bring all parties into compliance with their commitments.
To move matters more fundamentally and quickly toward a settlement and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire, we are immediately pursuing a high- level diplomatic effort with the parties and with regional countries and the United Nations. This effort will include several elements:
First, we intend to ask the United Nations to convene Foreign Ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India, and the United States to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan. It is my belief that these countries share an abiding common interest in a stable Afghanistan and must work together if we are to succeed.
Second, I have asked Ambassador Khalilzad, whose vital work President Biden and I asked that he continue, to prepare and to share with you as well as with Taliban leaders written proposals aimed at accelerating discussions on a negotiated settlement and ceasefire. These proposals reflect some of the ideas included in the roadmap for the peace process that Ambassador Mohib shared with Ambassador Wilson. In sharing these documents, we do not intend to dictate terms to the parties. Rather, the documents will enable the Islamic Republic and the Taliban to move urgently to the tasks of developing a) the foundational principles that will guide Afghanistan’s future constitutional and governing arrangements, b) a roadmap to a new, inclusive government; and c) the terms of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. I urge you to develop constructive positions on these written proposals to discuss with Ambassador Khalilzad.
Third, we will ask the government of Turkey to host a senior-level meeting of both sides in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.
Fourth, we share your view that every effort must be made to reduce the high levels of violence in Afghanistan, which are exacting an unacceptable toll on the Afghan people and deeply undermining efforts to achieve peace. We have prepared a revised proposal for a 90-day Reduction-in-Violence, which is intended to prevent a Spring Offensive by the Taliban and to coincide with our diplomatic efforts to support a political settlement between the parties. I urge you to positively consider the proposal, which Ambassador Khalilzad will share with you.
Unity and inclusivity on the Islamic Republic side are, I believe, essential for the difficult work that lies ahead. As you and your countrymen know all too well, disunity on the part of Afghan leaders proved disastrous in the early 1990s and must not be allowed to sabotage the opportunity before us. Your work together with Chairman Abdullah and your engagements with former President Karzai and Professor Sayyaf show promise toward building a more united Afghan front for I ask that you work together to further broaden this consultative реаce. group of four such that Afghans regard it as inclusive and credible; to build consensus on specific goals and objectives for a negotiation with the Taliban about governance, power-sharing, and essential supporting principles; and to agree on overall tactics and public messaging that will demonstrate unity of effort and purpose. We will strongly support all efforts taken to make this united front work.
I must also make clear to you, Mr. President, that as our policy process continues in Washington, the United States has not ruled out any option. We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1st, as we consider other options. Even with the continuation of financial assistance from the United States to your forces after an American military withdrawal, I am concerned that the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains. I am making this clear to you so that you understand the urgency of my tone regarding the collective work outlined in this letter.
I look forward to continuing to work with you as a partner.
Antony J. Blinken