Peace Deal Trumped

Peace Deal Trumped
US President Donald Trump has junked the proposed Afghan peace agreement with the Taliban cobbled by his handpicked emissary, Zalmay Khalilzad, over many rounds of meetings with stakeholders in Qatar, Islamabad and Kabul. He says he had planned to bring Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Taliban leaders to Camp David for a historic signing but cancelled at the last minute because the Taliban continue to launch attacks on American and Afghan forces and won’t agree to a ceasefire.

This is a sloppy excuse. The Taliban say they never agreed to any signing in Camp David – the agreement was for an announcement in Qatar where all the talks have been held. The Taliban also say that they have consistently rejected the proposal for a ceasefire before the agreement as they have of any direct meeting with representatives of the Ghani government. The record bears them out. There were only two main points to the agreement: a firm American timetable for withdrawal and a pledge by the Taliban not to allow any terrorist activity from Afghan soil in America.

Clearly, Mr Trump has been clever by half. The Camp David scene was set to sell a “historic agreement” to the American people in which the US would have been billed as the victor in a long, bloody and costly conflict. But the Taliban rejected it because they are the victors in Afghanistan and don’t want to be portrayed in America as the losers. Certainly, their own constituents would have disowned their leaders if they had allowed themselves to be bullied into embracing sworn enemies Presidents Trump and Ghani.

But President Trump’s own team was also increasingly unhappy about the proposed deal. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had already expressed reservations and said he wouldn’t sign off on it. NSA John Bolton consistently argued for a much harder line with the Taliban and has been forced to resign because of disagreements with President Trump. Core right-wing Republicans in Congress and the Administration were also uneasy – they thought that, with Taliban attacks continuing, the deal wouldn’t even serve as a fig leaf for US troop withdrawal and provoke a domestic backlash, especially if the “murderers” of yesterday were feted as the “friends” of today on American soil.

Postscript: Mr Pompeo has tried to reassure Americans that US forces have “killed over 1000 Taliban in one month alone” and will continue the good fight against the forces of evil in Afghanistan. And Mr Trump insists he has junked the deal for good because the Taliban won’t agree to a ceasefire or talk directly with the Ghani regime. What next?

Clearly, Mr Trump is not about to junk his oft-repeated campaign pledge to the American people that he will bring American troops home from Afghanistan next year. So we may expect that after strong words have been exchanged between both adversaries, including well publicized attacks on each other’s forces in Afghanistan, they will be inclined to re-start talks sooner or later. Therefore, President Trump will now put great pressure on Pakistan not just to help restart the dialogue but also to “do more” to get a better deal from the Taliban for America. He will reinforce the traditional “carrot and stick” policy in hand: the carrots are spares for American weapons systems with Pakistan, Coalition Support Fund handouts, trade incentives, etc, while brandishing FATF and IMF sticks to drive the point home.

But this is easier said than done. There are many complications ahead.

The Presidential elections in Afghanistan are scheduled for later this month. If these are not postponed indefinitely pending an agreement with the Taliban, there will be massive bloodshed and instability because the stakes are very high for those who wish to participate and for those who wish to derail them. New vested interests on both sides will be consolidated and it will be difficult to undo them later. Apart from the US, which will be compelled to support the Afghan regime with more money and weapons, India, Russia and Iran will also strive to obtain leveraging footholds in the developing scenario from which they will not budge easily later. And Pakistan will find it difficult to convince the Taliban to concede some chips to America before all this happens.

President Trump’s wacky decision has put the Bajwa-Imran junta on the spot. They thought they had stitched up a win-win situation for Pakistan vis a vis the Taliban and the Americans, while managing to isolate and weaken the pro-India Afghan regime of President Ghani. Indeed, their glib spokesmen were prone to tick off critics who questioned the significance of the of the 21-gun welcome salute they received in Washington last month. Now it is back to the drawing board, with President Trump menacingly looking over their shoulder.

Pakistan’s trumped up “reset” with America has been unilaterally undone by President Trump. The junta will have to “Do More” to earn it now. That won’t be easy without economic revival, political stability and national consensus at home.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.