Afghanistan End Game

The United States and the Afghan Taliban have adopted a two-pronged approach in their long fight against each other. The two warring sides mirror each other’s strategy as the fight seems to have entered its last stage, raising the expectations for peace and stability in the war-torn country.

While the US has been on tiptoes to engage the Taliban in talks, it has also reiterated the strategy of keeping on the pressure tactics on the Taliban. Along with the talks, the counterinsurgency operation is going on to push the insurgent group out of the picture. In response, the Taliban has adopted the same approach: it has evinced interest in talks with the US but is continuing its fight against the US-backed Afghan government. The latest attack was carried out on Afghan Intelligence Agency in Kabul while the talks were going on in Qatar.

The latest round of talks was held in Qatar for ending the stalemate over the participation of Kabul in the negotiations for a political settlement of the 17-year conflict which has seen a huge loss of men and material in Afghanistan. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid had confirmed that the “discussions are still ongoing” in Qatar. He said, “We will talk in detail later when we reach agreement.” Pakistan foreign ministry confirmed that the talks were going on between the two sides. The US said that it had resumed talks with the Taliban in Qatar, where its special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was meeting the insurgent representatives.

The six-day talks ended on 27 January and has reportedly led to an agreement on the principles of resolving the conflict and withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan. After the dialogue, Khalilzad said that the six -day meetings were “more productive than they have been in the past. We made significant progress on vital issues.”   

Before the Doha talks, America and the Taliban met in December 2018 in Abu Dhabi. The meeting was facilitated by Pakistan and observed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. That kind of engagement, both sides feel, is essential to end the impasse for giving peace a chance in Afghanistan.  

As Washington looks desperate to end its military adventure in Afghanistan on a note of positivity, the Taliban have a strong reason to celebrate America’s departure as the latter’s defeat. The US has not managed to defeat the Taliban over the years, establishing the insurgent group’s growing momentum and might. The bonus for the insurgent fighters has been their battle-field experience and knowledge regarding the tactics for weakening the Western-backed Kabul government.

Hence, the Taliban has over the years built a convincing case of triumph over Kabul, leading to its control over sixty percent area of Afghanistan and leaving the government weak and pushed to the backseat. The insurgents have exerted relentless pressure on the demoralized Afghan security forces. Full of confidence, they have persistently said to hold negotiations with America, not with the Kabul government. The Taliban expects that after the US departure, they will be in a strong position to impose a political settlement on the other Afghan parties.

A significant development is the sustained efforts of the US to enter into talks with the Taliban to end the conflict. The move shows America’s frustration, thanks to the war which has almost gone to end in victory of the Taliban. Two important events attest to Washington’s retreat: one, its recent announcement of withdrawing its half of the total 14,000 troops from Afghanistan. Two, its sustained insistence on Pakistan’s help to end the Afghan war. A dominant America would never have adopted this flexible posture.

When President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, Washington hoped that sending more troops in Afghanistan could defeat the Taliban and that some factions of the insurgent group could come up for talks. Recently, there is a consensus both in and outside America that there is no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban. The political pundits believe that the only way to end the Afghan war is through a political settlement to bring the insurgent group into the Afghan political system. The Taliban’s approach has not been to defeat the US but to show itself never defeated by the US-led forces. The approach has worked, giving America no option but to ask the Taliban for talks.

To make that happen, Washington has intensified its efforts by sending its experienced diplomat Khalilzad to engage the Taliban and to find a political solution.

An expert on the Taliban Rahimullah Yousufzai said that the talks represented ‘unprecedented’ progress. “I have never seen anything like this before. This is the first serious effort. And it has continued since July… They have agreed to disagree and continued to meet. That’s why it’s unprecedented”, he said.

Engaging in talks is a crowning achievement of diplomacy in the Afghan crisis. The present diplomacy can produce a permanent political solution or backfire, leading to further chaos because many forces are fighting to secure their interests in Afghanistan.

Russia has carved a niche for itself in the Afghan game. It has cooperated with the Taliban while engaging the insurgent group in talks through the ‘Moscow Format’. Moscow aims to involve the regional players and Kabul in talks with the Taliban to end the conflict, thus winning sympathy and goodwill of the Afghan people and the powers that be. That, in turn, can make America soften its stand against Russia.

China would like to improve its ties with the US by helping the latter leave with respect from the crisis. China can bring the key regional players such as Pakistan, Russia, Iran together to help end the Afghan conflict politically. Chinese Ambassador in Pakistan Yao Jing said, on Tuesday at Peshawar, Pakistan, that China will “ pick Afghan Taliban as a political force” given their participation in the peace talks with the US. He added that his country had contacts with the Taliban and Kabul and that they were sending an envoy to visit the Taliban’s office in Qatar.

Pakistan, the immediate neighbor of Afghanistan, has no option but to help the peace process for its own interests. Pakistan cannot live peacefully if its western border continues to face instability. An insecure and unstable Afghanistan will harm Islamabad’s interests from every angle.

India feels that the restoration of the Taliban government in Afghanistan may affect its stand over Kashmir and that the Kashmir movement may get a morale boost with the Taliban in office. Thus New Delhi can seek cooperation from Russia, Iran, and China to secure its geopolitical interests in the region.   

Coming back to Afghanistan end game, it is worthwhile to mention that Iran is perceived to be enjoying more influence with the Taliban. There are fears that Tehran may not allow a respectable and smooth departure to the US from Afghanistan in view of its strained ties with it. America sees Iran as its number one adversary in the Middle East. Tehran is under severe US sanctions and faces a big challenge from Washington and its  Middle Eastern allies- Israel and Saudi Arabia in its desire of regional leadership.

For the Taliban, it is a golden opportunity to end the conflict by engaging with the Afghan government and the US. The insurgent group is comfortably placed and is playing from the position of strength. Moreover, the sympathy and support of the international community are with them at this stage. Hence, they are likely to make good use of the opportunity to see the departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Pertinently, America shows the signs of fatigue due to the unending war and has realized that talks are the only solution to end the conflict. The Taliban can be expected to use this factor as a ladder to return to the Afghan political system. From the US perspective, the time is ripe to pull out of the war and let Afghanistan focus on development and stability.

Today, the other big players -regional and global- are on the same page, seeking an end to the war. If the US remains committed to resolving the issue through negotiations, it will win international goodwill and prove its strength of resolving the most fearful wars. Washington must seek the support of the regional players like China, Pakistan and India to get the Taliban and the Afghan government together so that a peaceful political solution is secured, leaving Afghanistan politically stable. Resolving the conflict can be seen as US foreign policy victory.

On their part, the Afghan people must welcome the Taliban and US move. They need to support the peace process and encourage both sides to take the dialogue to its logical end. A good solution, after the US exit, lies in power-sharing which includes representatives from all sections of the society. A middle path for both the warring sides is compromise and concession. Not giving up on one’s tough position can lead to chaos, death, and destruction again.

Image: Sergeant Joseph R. Chenelly, United States Marine Corps [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.

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