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EFSAS Commentary

Strange negotiations in an incongruous environment do not portend well for peace in Afghanistan


The milieu in which Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States (US) special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, has been holding successive rounds of talks with the Taliban in Doha is rather bizarre and surreal. The talks are ostensibly aimed at bringing in ‘peace’ in Afghanistan, but have been persisted with even as the Taliban launched attack after ferocious attack against US and Afghan troops and interests in Afghanistan. This has rendered the term “peace talks” a misnomer in this context, and is suggestive of the US’ acknowledgement of defeat and its alacrity and eagerness to cut its losses and get out of Afghanistan at the first available opportunity. The urge to do so appears to be so strong that despite repeatedly verbalizing the primacy of the interests of Afghanistan and its people, the US in fact appears to be possessed by a devil-may-care outlook towards the country that it entered into uninvited, and the government it set up there, which it now appears to be willing to abandon.

The gravity of the situation that the flippant attitude of the Trump administration towards Afghanistan has bred can be gauged from the fact that as many as nine former US Ambassadors and special representatives, each of whom has personally dealt with Afghanistan in the course of their careers, felt constrained enough to issue a joint statement on 3 September drawing attention to the perils of persisting with the Trump administration’s ill-conceived negotiating positions and future plans for Afghanistan. Their warning was issued after President Donald Trump and other US officials, including Khalilzad, publicly revealed nuggets on the state of play after the conclusion of the 9th round of negotiations with the Taliban. On the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Trump, in an interview with Fox News radio last week, referred to the agreement reached with the Taliban delegation in Doha at the 9th round of talks and said that “We’re going down to 8,600 and then we make a determination from there. We’re always going to have a presence”. Khalilzad, in an interview with the Afghan TV channel Tolo, said that “In principle, we have got there. The document is closed… We have agreed that if the conditions proceed according to the agreement, we will leave within 135 days five bases in which we are present now”. As per the Pentagon, the total number of US troops in Afghanistan is 14,000. That means that about 5,400 US troops would leave Afghanistan under the initial terms of the deal with the Taliban.

The nine former US Ambassadors and special representatives, in their joint statement on the website of the think tank Atlantic Council cautioned that “How our troop presence is managed will have a critical influence on the chances for successful peace negotiations, the future of the fight against the Islamic State, and the chance for Afghans to pursue representative government”. They added, “A few critical guard rails stand out in order to avoid the risk of Afghanistan becoming a new center of terrorism harboring groups dedicated to attacking the United States and to avoid betraying our own values by depriving Afghans of the chance to determine their own future”. They opined that “First, it is not clear whether peace is possible. The Taliban have made no clear statements about the conditions they would accept for a peaceful settlement with their fellow Afghans, nor do they have a track record of working with other political forces. Secondly, there is an outcome far worse than the status quo, namely a return to the total civil war that consumed Afghanistan as badly as the war with the Russians and something that could follow a breakdown in negotiations if we remove too much support from the Afghan state. If the State totters, those with nasty memories of life under the Taliban will fight on. That disaffected group would include Afghanistan’s minorities, which together comprise a majority of the Afghan population”. They further advised that “a major troop withdrawal must be contingent on a final peace. The initial US drawdown should not go so far or so fast that the Taliban believe that they can achieve military victory. In that case, they will not make compromises for peace with other Afghan political forces… Hence, while we agree strongly that negotiations are essential, it is equally essential that the Afghan state have a government able to govern and fight while negotiations take place, as well as a chance to sustain itself if negotiations fail”.

The issues underlined by the nine Ambassadors are hugely relevant. While the US government’s intentions and goals at the talks with the Taliban are not majorly ambiguous, the same cannot be said of the Taliban. Other than their strong reservations on talking to the Afghan government, without which an intra-Afghan agreement cannot be reached, and their reported commitment made to the US to not let anti-US terrorist groups operate in Afghanistan, not much is forthcoming from the Taliban on how it visualizes a post-US withdrawal political structure in Afghanistan. In his Tolo interview, Khalilzad did mention that in return for the withdrawal of US troops the Taliban had agreed to open negotiations with the Afghan government, with Norway being reported as the venue for such talks. Skeptics question whether such negotiations will indeed fructify, and if they do, whether anything meaningful will come out of such talks given the hostile attitude of the Taliban towards the Afghan government, which it describes as a US puppet. This is especially so if the pressure of US troops on the ground is released before the negotiations through the withdrawal of the over 5,000 troops within the next few months. There has been no clear indication as yet from the US that the withdrawal of its troops would, in any way, be dependent on the degree of success of the intra-Afghan talks.

As for the other Taliban commitments quoted by Khalilzad, which include cutting ties with the Al Qaeda and not allowing Afghanistan to be used by groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State as a base for attacks on the US and its allies, the nine Ambassadors expressed the fear that “In a civil war, there would be large areas of the country in which the Islamic State (IS) presence could expand its already strong foothold. Regional and other players such as Iran, Pakistan, and Russia would all support Afghan allies, likely fueling the fighting. Under these circumstances it is likely that the Taliban would maintain their alliance with al-Qaeda. All of this could prove catastrophic for US national security as it relates to our fight against both al-Qaeda and IS, and it would underscore to potential enemies that the United States and its allies are not reliable”.

It is noteworthy that the Taliban, which in the US books was a terrorist outfit at least till the talks began in 2018, and which is even today ceaselessly launching what the US would certainly term terrorist attacks against its forces in Afghanistan, is being raised by the US to the level where it is being given the authority to curb other terrorist outfits. It is another matter that the Taliban even today denies that Al Qaeda was behind the 9/11 attacks in the US, and that Al Qaeda continues to operate alongside the Taliban and reportedly provides it with funds as well. As for the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), despite the Taliban’s hatred of the group, the fact of the matter is that there is more than one organization that works under the banner of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Several experts as well as Afghan officials believe that one of these Islamic States, the one that operates in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province bordering Pakistan, acts as a smokescreen for the Taliban.

The Afghan government that has, disturbingly, been kept out of the talks thus far is understandably confused and concerned over the turn that events are taking. Media reports suggest that the draft agreement between the US and the Taliban that was drawn up at the 9th round of talks uses the term ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, a nomenclature that the Taliban had used when it had grabbed power in Afghanistan in 1996. Use of the term in the final agreement would be a huge victory for the Taliban as it would tantamount to a recognition by the US that the Taliban were the legitimate government in Afghanistan, predating the present government which was elected democratically. Little wonder, then, that Sediq Sediqqi, the spokesman of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, tweeted the following after Ghani was shown the draft agreement by Khalilzad, “The Afghan government is also concerned and we, therefore, would like further clarity on this document to completely analyse its dangers and negative consequences and avoid the dangers”.

The US, it would seem, is not averse to allowing the Afghan government to be forced into negotiations with the Taliban with a gun pointed to its head. In its hurry to scurry out of Afghanistan, it also seems to have no qualms about potentially letting the South Asian region be engulfed by another phase of insecurity. As for the US itself, Republican lawmaker Liz Cheney put it aptly when she said, “We will not be ending the war – we will be retreating and ceding the battlefield to our enemies, including the organization that harbored the terrorists responsible for killing nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11”.