The United States has been struggling to stablise Afghanistan for the last eighteen years and is currently looking to withdraw its forces from the war-torn country. In September 2018, US President Donald Trump installed his Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation (SRAR) to engage the Taliban for peace talks. Zalmay Khalilzad’s appointment as SRAR was part of President Trump’s larger Afghanistan centric South Asia strategy which was designed to integrate and employ diplomatic, economic and military means to broker a successful outcome in the country – a political settlement that would include elements of Taliban in a manner appearing as an “American victory”.
Khalilzad’s mission is to convince the Taliban to initiate “Afghan-led and Afghan owned” negotiations. The Taliban, however, refuse to initiate intra-Afghan talks until there is a withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. The timeline for troop withdrawal itself, however, is fraught with disagreement between the White House and the Defence Department; the former pushing for a swift withdrawal of troops and the latter adopting a more cautious and conservative strategy. This disagreement proves to be the most imminent and obvious hurdle in the ongoing peace process.
Since his installment as SRAR, Khalilzad has made four trips to the region. He has consulted almost all stakeholders including the Taliban, the Afghan Government, civil society, religious groups and regional powers in the aim of achieving consensus. Interestingly, after Khalilzad’s third trip a media report suggested the withdrawal of almost half of the US troops stationed in Afghanistan. The report was welcomed by regional powers, in the hopes it would potentially pave the way for an Afghan government representation in the upcoming round of talks. However, the news was quickly rebuked by the newly appointed Commander of the Foreign Forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller calling it “rumors by newspapers”. The intra-US disagreements on the timeline for troop withdrawal hampers progress. The Taliban have maintained the withdrawal of US troops a top priority- unable to meet this demand, Washington tried to put pressure on the insurgent group to change the agenda of their next round of talks, a move that resulted in delaying Khalilzad’s subsequent meeting with the Taliban.
The US envoy finally met with the Taliban delegation in what became his fourth trip to the region, not in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan but in Qatar, that too, under the agenda set by the insurgent group. After six consecutive days, Khalilzad announced that a framework for a peace deal had been drafted in principle, where the Taliban guaranteed that Afghanistan would not be used by Al-Qaeda and Daesh after the withdrawal of foreign troops, in return for larger concessions of a cease-fire or direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Again, all these ‘gains’ are hinged on a withdrawal of troops, for which timetable is still not set, and without which, there will be no intra-Afghan dialogue and hence no long term viable solution.
By and large to observers it appears that the US military top brass find it unwise to abandon Afghanistan without establishing a permanent base after almost two decades of hard fought battle. Khalilzad has however denied pursuing any such demand as the intra-US discord on the strategy for US troops in Afghanistan continues. In addition, there also appear to be some anomalies and irregularities within the National Unity Government of Afghanistan (NUG) and a lack of coordination and harmony between the US and the NUG, thereby hampering the peace process further.
Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, who has been staunchly opposing the idea of a transitional government on an interim basis that could include the Taliban, assured the people that their rights would not be compromised in the name of peace, and that the country’s sovereignty will be upheld. Ghani on the issue of foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has reiterated that while they would leave at some point, withdrawal would be done in accordance with an orderly plan.
As far as anomalies and irregularities are concerned, President Ghani recently replaced the country’s Defense and Interior Ministers, both of whom are known to adopt a stauncher anti-Taliban stance, and who have previously alleged the insurgents were responsible for an attack in Kabul – a claim that was outrightly denied by the group. And while SRAR, the Pentagon and US senators have praised Pakistan’s efforts in facilitating the Afghan peace process, Ghani’s ill-informed views are to the contrary. His continuous rant against Pakistan might be the result of his National Security Advisor’s recent India visit. This move brings into questions India’s motive and interests in the war-torn country. Ghani with the assistance of India seems to be preparing to intensify fighting against the Taliban at a time when the US recommends a ceasefire.
In the meantime, Afghanistan’s Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah’s pronouncement that the Taliban can only join the peace talks under the umbrella of the Afghan government was supported by the Chief of Staff of the US Army, Gen. Mark Milley during his recent Kabul visit. The Pentagon and the NUG support a more cautious and conservative strategy vis-a-vis withdrawal of foreign troops. Interestingly, on the day US Army Chief met Afghan authorities, Kabul called Washington for clarification in its policies.
The NUG’s most imminent apprehension appears to be the ‘Taliban’s perception of governance’. At the very least, Kabul would want Washington to ensure during the ongoing rounds of talks, that the Taliban adhere to globally accepted democratic norms and by doing so compromise on their “Islamic Emirate” style of governance. That fear also discourages establishing an interim government before the upcoming presidential election, in order to ensure the country’s current constitution remains intact.
In addition, Washington’s Afghanistan strategy inadequately addresses the role of regional powers. The peace process cannot proceed to the next level (from US-Taliban to intra-Afghan) until the US learns how to declare a victory in Afghanistan and the Trump Administration determines the role and influence of regional powers in the current state of Afghan affairs to achieve this.
Pakistan and Iran remain the most crucial regional powers when it comes to Afghan affairs. From a geostrategic perspective, Afghanistan a landlocked country remains dependent on Pakistan and Iran. Both the nations continue to be the biggest victims of the conflict in Afghanistan; the conflict has resulted in an influx of refugees crossing into Iran and Pakistan coupled with a host of additional security challenges. Interestingly, Iran and Pakistan share the same core national security interest, which is to see a stable Afghanistan: a prerequisite for ensuring peace and preserving the status quo in Sistan and Baluchistan Province (a province of Iran).
The US has consistently rushed to Pakistan for assistance when talks stalled with the Taliban, despite Pakistan’s admission that its influence over the Taliban has dwindled over the years. This decline in influence has occurred primarily due to the efforts made by Pakistan, in the recent past, to change its policy to curb extremism at home and reduce and halt any kind of dependence on Afghanistan. In addition, Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban further dwindled after Pakistan was put under tight checks and intense observation from international institutions and regimes vis-a-vis terror financing and sponsoring. For Islamabad, the threat of Daesh affiliate’s presence in Afghanistan remains the sole concern because of its ties to proscribed terrorist groups that have historically targeted Pakistan, including Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jandullah.
Iran, which historically had close links to the Northern Alliance, has been maintaining good relations with the NUG, especially with Chief Executive, Abdullah. Over the years, Tehran has also been successful in increasing its influence over the Taliban. That was made evident in the Taliban’s recent Tehran visit. Moreover, the construction of the Chabahar port has furthered the role and significance of Iran. India, America’s most trusted regional ally, is becoming increasingly dependent on Iran to gain access to Afghanistan.
Russia and China also hold vital national security interests in the resolution of the Afghan crisis. Russia still holds a certain degree of influence over the Central Asian Republics (CARs) which are adjacent to Afghanistan. The rise of Daesh in Afghanistan and the fear of extremism spreading to mainland Russia through Central Asia is a crucial reason for Moscow to see a stable Afghanistan. Recently, Russia has tried to increase its influence over the Taliban by hosting talks between the Taliban and Afghan opposition leaders in Moscow. China too has a strategic interest in seeing a stable Afghanistan as it needs to stop the flow of extremism from Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor into mainland China. Furthermore, a stable Afghanistan is necessary for the implementation of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Interestingly, previous foes are now friends: Iran and Russia have capitalized on expanding their influence on the Taliban. Similarly, Pakistan has a joint cause with the Taliban, which is to defeat Daesh, making Islamabad a key stakeholder in the ongoing peace process. The converging interests of regional powers in ensuring a stable Afghanistan requires the US to devise a new plan or amend the previous one, by categorically identifying the roles and responsibilities of each power.
A victory for the US would be one where firstly, they are able to overcome the differences within and with the authorities in Kabul. After this is achieved, Washington must consult all regional countries through an established mechanism, which uses their collective influence over the Taliban to find a middle way. This results in local stakeholders getting their due share of representation and regional stakeholders ensured that the country would not become the cradle of civil and proxy wars again. For the US, dealing with Iran and defining and justifying India’s role would remain to be the trickiest challenges in this respect. Afghanistan remains a challenging frontier having suffered the grim realities of decades of war and it is through regional collaboration and cooperation that a sustained peaceful settlement can be reached.
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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Kashif Hussain holds M.Phil Degree in International Relations from Quaid i Azam University Islamabad. He is currently serving as Research Associate at Strategic Studies Institute Islamabad (SSII).