Is the Afghan end game near?

Farhatullah Babar looks at the factors that could upset the ‘peace deal’

Is the Afghan end game near?
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad showed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Monday the draft of an agreement between the US and the Taliban arrived after nine rounds of talks in Doha. No immediate comments were made by the Afghan president’s office. Reports, however, said Ashraf Ghani, whose government has been shut out of the talks, will give his views this week after internal consultations with his colleagues.

Earlier, amid talks in Doha, Taliban chief spokesman Suhail Shaheen had declared that a deal was “near to finalised.” “We remain optimistic. We hope to clinch an agreement in this round of talks,” he said.

Before arriving in Kabul on Sunday, Khalilzad tweeted: “We are at the threshold of an agreement that will reduce violence and open the door for Afghans to sit together to negotiate an honourable and sustainable peace.” The deal, he said, would pave the way to “unified, sovereign Afghanistan that does not threaten the United State, its allies, or any other country” without any further elaboration.

Previously, US Secretary of state Mike Pompeo had also expressed hope that a peace deal would be finalised before September 1, ahead of the Afghan presidential polls on September 28.

US-Taliban talks have focused on four elements: withdrawal of foreign troops, which the Taliban regard as the foremost and fundamental issue, the counter-terrorism assurances by the Taliban, the intra-Afghan dialogue and a comprehensive ceasefire. It is not clear how differences over the time frame of withdrawal, on the definition of terms “terrorism” and a “terrorist,” the intra-Afghan dialogue and a complete cessation of hostilities have been narrowed.

President Trump may want to finalise the deal before the US presidential elections next year as a tangible foreign policy achievement that will also have a profound impact on the economy to bolster his re-election bid. However, it the fact cannot be denied that he has long been calling for an end to US involvement in Afghanistan, terming it “a complete waste” and that “we should leave Afghanistan immediately.” After becoming president, he even said that he could end the war quickly if he didn’t mind killing millions of people.

Yet, despite expressions of intent by Trump and optimism by Zalmay Khalilzad, four distinct factors may upset the applecart.

First, it remains to be seen whether Taliban’s political negotiators in Doha can have the consensus of all their factions and whether they also exercise control over their field commanders. The latest Taliban attack on Kunduz, repulsed only with American air power, demonstrated a spectacular command and control structure of the commanders and an ability to deliver on the field. When push comes to shove, it will be field commanders who will call the shots. Are the commanders amenable to political control? Do all Taliban factions have similar unity of purpose? The inability of the Taliban negotiators to bring together all factions to accept any peace agreement can break the deal.

Second, there are concerns about a US withdrawal resulting in a civil war in the country, creating space for international militants like ISIS, Al Qaeda and elements that the US is desperate to eliminate. Divergent views have been expressed by different arms of state power within the US from time to time. Taliban’s refusal to accept the Afghan constitution and their insistence on capturing all power is recipe for civil war, creating space for ultra-militants that can force US rethink withdrawal modalities.

Third, whether the Ghani-led Afghan government, largely side lined from the peace process, will abide by the deal. There is also no guarantee that the Taliban will not walk away from the deal at the last minute believing that they have the capability to force US troops withdrawal without a deal.

Finally, and more importantly, the role of the miltablishment in Pakistan; whether it will resist the temptation to link the Afghan peace process with the Indian annexation of Kashmir.

A US think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), has said that Pakistan might seek to leverage its position in Afghanistan into pressuring the US persuade India to come to the negotiating table. “The Kashmir issue may not only detract Pakistani resources and political will away from Afghanistan but potentially could also be used as leverage to persuade the United States to intervene with India,” it noted.

Muted and ominous voices have already been raised in some quarters in Pakistan in this regard. “It is high time to wage jihad and send groups of jihadis (to Kashmir),” the Jama’at chief said in a public meeting in Karachi on Sunday, calling also for dismantling the LoC fencing.

There has been no categorical rejection by the Foreign Office of linking Kashmir with Afghanistan. Since foreign policy issues relating to Afghanistan and India are being framed by the security establishment alone, there is little transparency and no parliamentary discussion and oversight. As the Taliban reportedly regroup in parts of erstwhile tribal areas, the shutting of Waziristan to non-local Pakistani citizens has only fuelled suspicions. Is the silence of organizations believed to be close to miltablishment the proverbial lull before the storm?

Linking peace in Afghanistan with Kashmir, tempting though it may appear to some, will be a disastrous policy. It will only keep the inferno burning and erode whatever little support Pakistan may still have internationally. It could also cause Kashmiris to lose whatever support they have in the US Congress. All this is obvious but it being obvious doesn’t mean that it is not a potent and real factor in upsetting the applecart.  n


The writer has been a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.