Afghanistan hangs in the balance


By Zubeida Mustafa



The tables have turned. The Taliban, the militants who sheltered the 9/11 attackers and earned the wrath of America, are now meeting their arch-nemesis in Doha, Qatar. Conducting the talks is Zalmay Khalilzad, a senior diplomat of Afghan descent who is currently serving as the U.S. State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation.

Since August 2018, the two parties have met five times. Last Tuesday, Ambassador Khalilzad tweeted: “Just finished a marathon round of talks with the Taliban in Doha. The conditions for peace have improved. It’s clear all sides want to end the war. Despite ups and downs, we kept things on track and made real strides.”

It had been hoped that the peace talks would reach some positive conclusion by spring and a cease-fire announced. This has not happened. Ambassador Khalilzad has returned to Washington for further consultations.

What is holding up the negotiations? The special representative touched on this issue when he identified four major points on which agreement was essential for further progress. They are:

  • Counterterrorism assurances
  • Withdrawal of U.S. and NATO-affiliated troops
  • Intra-Afghan dialogue
  • A comprehensive cease-fire

In the February-March round now adjourned, an agreement has been reached on the draft of the first two questions only. It is obvious that these are the less complex issues on which anyone wishing to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan would agree readily. As it is, both sides, as well as Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, are now feeling uneasy and anxious about the intensely unstable situation in South and Southwest Asia.

U.S. President Donald Trump is also keen on reaching a consensus, as he has promised his people that he would bring American troops home. Since the agreed-upon draft has not been revealed one cannot comment on it, especially on the nature of the assurances regarding anti-terrorism. The Taliban are expected to pledge not to allow anyone to launch a 9/11-like attack against the U.S. again. What safeguards will be offered to ensure this is not known—neither has any time schedule for troop withdrawal been revealed.

The last two issues are trickier still, as they will determine the future political structure of Afghanistan. It requires no knowledge of rocket science to understand that the Taliban are negotiating from a position of strength and want to translate their military strategic advantage into political control over the country. This is a test case for the U.S.

So far, the Taliban have been adamant about having no truck with the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul. It is dubbed an “American puppet.” There is no doubt that Ghani cannot survive in office without U.S. military backing. Today the Taliban control over 30 percent of Afghan territory. The capital is still held by Ghani thanks to America’s military presence. As U.S.and NATO forces have gradually been pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban have gained in strength. America’s attempts to train the Afghan army and arm it with modern weapons have not succeeded in converting it into a strong fighting force capable of defending the country.

If the Ghani government is sidelined to allow Khalilzad to make a deal in Doha, it would amount to Washington’s political surrender to an enemy it has fought for 17 years. The American electorate could well ask their current and former administrations to explain the loss of over 6,000 American lives in a prolonged and deadly war which failed to yield any political or strategic gains.

Taliban authority is inevitable if the leadership in Kabul is kept out of the talks. Without his government’s participation, Ghani would have no say in the implementation of the final settlement and the power-sharing arrangement that is worked out. Moreover, once the U.S. forces are out of Afghanistan, it would be a walkover for the Taliban.

Taliban leaders have already been discussing their future plans. Theirs would be an Islamic state, but they have moderated their tone somewhat, not wishing to revive memories of the ideological state they created from 1996 to 2001. Yet their extremist anti-female and anti-culture stance and militancy invites skepticism given their past record while in power.

They have also promised to cultivate cordial and friendly relations with Islamabad. This is to be expected. After all, Pakistan has been a friend that has provided them support and helped them break out of their isolation. Islamabad’s role in paving the way for the Doha talks has been acknowledged by Washington.

These developments have profound implications for Pakistan’s geopolitical prospects, which currently appear to be bleak. Taliban policies are bound to evoke a reaction from their rivals in the north of Pakistan. To begin with, it is feared that as soon as the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, in-fighting will break out, leaving Pakistan to cope with the mess that is bound to be left behind. That has happened before, and it will happen again. Pakistan lacks the capacity to address the ensuing crisis. It might complicate matters further. The U.S. withdrawal will create a vacuum if an agreement with firm international guarantees is not drawn up.

Pakistan will be back to square one—but in a worse regional scenario than ever before. The situation as it has emerged today has Russia and China eying the happenings in Afghanistan closely.

Since 2014, various forums have been set up to tackle the Afghan crisis. These have included Russia, China, the Taliban, Ashraf Ghani’s rivals, India, Pakistan, Iran and even the U.S. itself in various combinations. It was Trump’s categorical announcement about pulling out of Afghanistan that triggered the Doha framework that was firmed up by bringing Khalilzad into the negotiating process.

Even before the fifth round of negotiations ended on March 12, the world faced another crisis of grave dimension. India and Pakistan came to the brink of war on Kashmir. Considering that those two states are now nuclear powers, a full-fledged war between them would have led to nuclear havoc in South Asia.

Sherry Rahman, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the U.S., reminded readers in an article published in Dawn that in the four wars India and Pakistan have fought since 1947, they have suffered a combined death toll of 22,600.

She cited a study by the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War that says in a nuclear confrontation in South Asia, 21 million people could die, and it could cause global famine resulting in the death of two billion people worldwide.

Rahman’s article was a powerful reminder that Kashmir had re-emerged as a dangerous flashpoint which should not be ignored.

At this stage, Kashmir will cast its long shadow on the talks in Doha. Though neither of the two nuclear powers are interlocutors in the Afghan negotiations, Kashmir will remain in the backdrop. Afghanistan, India and Pakistan have had a complex triangular relationship since 1947, when the British departed from the subcontinent.

Now we know more about the happenings in the region last month. The newspaper Dawn has revealed after due investigations that it was the Trump administration that played a key role in preventing the sparring between the two neighbors from spiraling out of control into a conflict of serious magnitude.

The goings-on behind the scenes will certainly have an impact on the Doha talks when Khalilzad returns to Qatar at the end of March

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