Just four months after starting the war on terror, US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld wrote on an internal review file: “I know I am a bit impatient. But the fact that Iran and Russia have plans for Afghanistan and we do not concerns me.” As the Americans pack their bags to move out of Afghanistan for the second time in three decades, I wonder if someone else sitting in the State Department or even the Pentagon is murmuring the same words. The only difference this time around is that the list of those having plans and a clear “vision” for Afghanistan and the region now also includes China with its landmark One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative and a few others — who have developed larger stakes in the unfortunate landlocked country of 37 million, including those still seeking refuge in Pakistan and Iran. Besides, millions of others have migrated across the globe during the last five decades for a variety of reasons including; economic opportunity, security, religious and ethnic marginalization and even sectarian cleansing.
It is ironic that President Trump sees this as one of the two critical steps to rejuvenate his campaign for a second presidential term — the other being formal and final reintegration of the state of Israel into the largely Muslim Middle East, which looked elusive till recently. With only months to go for what may be the most contentious presidential election in the history of United States, President Trump doesn’t have many options to play with. His handling of the COVID-19 crisis has pushed many of his followers to the opposite camp, although it was always going to be difficult for him to win a second term.
At the dawn of the last year in second decade of the 21st century, Afghan peace prospects did look much better than at any other stage in recent times. Yet it was obvious to almost all Afghan watchers that the only definitive step forward was President Trump’s decision to move out of Afghanistan. All other claims and announcements, including the subsequent truce between the US-brokered National Unity Government and the Taliban, the apparent and often repeated convergence of views on finding “an Afghan-led and Afghan owned solution” on all sides in the region and beyond, the silent support of the European allies for disengagement, the active diplomatic and at times even physical push by Pakistan were largely presumptive, if not altogether misplaced — primarily because of the lack of clarity on what role the United States and its’ allies want to play upon departure.
Apart from the rather complex but inherent global and regional implications of this change, there are simple issues like who will be in control once they leave and who will fund the bill of a dysfunctional state which is now used to living on foreign money — sans industrial or commercial infrastructure and the ability generate its’ own resources. The fact that the prime reason for President Trump’s decision to leave Afghanistan is also monetary makes this one of the core issues, if not the singular one.
Irrespective of the show of smiling faces on all sides, the actual worth of the outcome of talks will be determined after the US presidential elections
To recall the narrative for the American invasion of Afghanistan, three objectives were put forward. The Americans claimed that they have been forced to do this to counter terrorism — eliminate any chances of terrorist attacks like 9/11 on American soil or on American interests across the world. The second objective put forward was counter-insurgency — to ensure that once the Taliban are hunted and downed, they are not in a position to regroup or challenge the new Afghan leadership. Lastly, for the purpose of nation building — developing the infrastructure and economy of Afghanistan to a level where it can cater to the needs of its people, with a functional state structure without the funding of radical groups from across the globe, proceeds of global opium trade or the support and goodwill of warlords who hold various regions and areas within Afghanistan hostage. To take them up in reverse order, the thought of nation building now haunts the American policymakers more than anything else and no one could have put it forward with more clarity for the common man’s understanding than President Trump himself when he said recently: “we are not nation building again.”
President Trump can be brutally honest, only when he wishes to be and this appears to be one of those rare occasions. The state of Afghanistan is more dependent on foreign funding than at any time in its history, the control and authority of the “hybrid” central government put in place in Kabul under active military and strategic protection of America and its’ allies more reduced than ever before, the representative character of the regime more questionable then even the hereditary kingship witnessed in the past, the yields of opium trade higher and more widespread then anytime earlier and the vulnerability to regional and global interventions much greater. While the Americans adopted and propagated this at that time just to justify their invasion for more liberal and non-interventionists at home and abroad, the net outcome for Afghanistan or for that matter the world has been negligible.
Counter-insurgency was a bigger disaster. While the ease and swiftness with which the Taliban regime was liquidated in early days and the declaration of victory by President Bush was impressive by all means — it soon started to become clear that the Taliban have opted not to fight the American war machine as a strategic step. They instead opted for reverting to the centuries old maneuver of waiting and striking at a time of choice rather than via continuous, active-combat, in which they were simply no match for the world’s most equipped and feared war machine.
As time passed, they regrouped first in isolated hills and far off villages, then migrated to areas close to headquarters of warlords supporting the “infidel” invasion, identified sympathizers close to garrisons and struck at times with remarkable success and at others with massive losses. While even a small success meant huge gains in local support and a flurry of fresh recruits to the cause, no loss appeared to be enough to destroy the spirit. The arrests of high profile people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the precise mid-night ambush of Osama bin Laden and the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar were all setbacks primarily to the global terrorist network. The struggle within Afghanistan remained alive and kicking. No matter what number of allied troops were raised, the Taliban kept on striking at will, barring short periods of strategic withdrawal. Resultantly, the Afghan government is virtually reduced to Kabul and a few other districts where they face repeated and lethal Taliban attacks — while the Taliban control at least 18 districts completely, without any challenge. The Taliban have gathered sympathizers in all other areas, including Kabul who are just waiting to pick up arms the moment Americans leave. All of this does not demonstrate much achievement for the counter-insurgency objective. In fact, some insiders actually claim that those talking peace have little or no control over those fighting on ground and the home-grown nature of this resistance is unique in the sense that it lacks a central authority and control and only shares one singular objective of getting the Americans out of their land.
It is the first and most important policy objective and narrative at the time of attack, counter-terrorism, which has seen some success. However, while the Americans have been able to keep their homeland safe from any terrorist attack in almost two decades, their European allies have been on the receiving end during recent years. From London’s 7/7 to the Parisians’ nightmare — European capitals have shown an increasing vulnerability to terrorist attacks from an ever increasing number of terrorist outfits representing a variety of causes. Success on home soil has been mitigated by new challenges on the world map. Africa also appears to be caving in to migrating extremists while the Middle East is breeding new internal and external conflicts. South Asia with an American-backed India in the forefront of an adventurous venture in Kashmir remains on the brink of another war — while Modi’s brinkmanship has also pushed them closer to a conflict with neighboring China over decades old border disputes. The world today is much more susceptible to terrorism and war then in 2001.
With all this in view, different parties in the Afghan reconciliation process are in Doha yet again, each one more then determined to achieve its own preferred objectives. While the Americans will be looking for a peace deal which can give a much needed boost to the Presidential campaign — even if it doesn’t survive the test of implementation in years to come, they will still need something significant to show to the American people. Having made it clear already that not all the American soldiers will be coming home this year, President Trump has created space for himself to claim victory in delivering what other and much more celebrated Presidents failed to conquer. Given his ability to find something to cheer out of nothing a formal time-bound agreement between the warring parties can be bigger and better then the declaration of independence. On the other hand, the Afghan government will be looking for a guaranteed share of power post the withdrawal — a share which in all certainty is larger than their legitimate claim; they may actually feel short-changed if they don’t get what they had envisioned after serving American interests for such a long time.
Neither of the previous two holds the key to the possible outcomes as much as the third force; the Taliban. It is they who have forced the world’s biggest war machine to sit with them on the same table after almost two decades of a no-win conflict. For them, the passage of time was never relevant and remains as such today. They can still continue the fight if needed because they are neither short of soldiers nor money or weapons. They have been gaining ground slowly but steadily and each passing year has seen them increasing their presence and muscle on ground, where it actually matters. While the Karzais and the Ghanis kept addressing General Assemblies at the UN year after year — it was the Taliban who determined the pace of events and fight inside Afghanistan. With each passing year, the number of people questioning the legitimacy of the ruling elite in Kabul kept growing in audience at the UNGA, which once clapped endlessly to welcome Karzai in that mystic flowing robe and a virtual royal look. For the Taliban, the most important thing may not even be an assurance or guarantee of the American withdrawal which is now merely cosmetic and inevitable. Even power-sharing agreements and formulae can also be tweaked here and there with the passage of time. What matters to them most is the continuous flow of western money after the withdrawal and that’s something they would like to be assured off and perhaps the only thing for which they may actually agree to give something in return to the Americans and their allies — on all other counts they are already home.
The other western concerns like human rights, female education, women’s role in government and parliament are not likely to receive a clear undertaking from the Taliban as they will never like to be seen as surrendering Afghan sovereignty to “infidels” and they aren’t likely to be even apologetic about it. In fact, one of their key representatives in Doha talks, when pressed on the issue of role of women under the Taliban actually came up with the question: “How many female Presidents America had so far?” They were actually so sure of their strengths that they refused to start the negotiations till their six leaders were brought from detention in Afghanistan to the negotiating table. For them Americans leaving without a formal agreement after November elections or even in 2021 is a fair outcome and can actually allow them complete discretion. So their priority remains getting the guarantees for the continued flow of funds.
For Pakistan, the situation is fairly complex and still uncertain. While the Americans have been quite generous with their praise lately for the role played by Pakistan in bringing Taliban to the table and supporting the initiative at all stages, it can’t be assumed that this sentiment will prevail henceforth. It is also a fact that the Americans did reduce their focus on the role of India in Afghanistan but that too is a position taken to ensure enhanced cooperation from Pakistan. In the long run, they would like their new strategic ally in South Asia to have a good presence in Afghanistan to counter the emerging regional alliance led by China, if nothing else. The present dispensation in Afghanistan also considers Indian presence and support crucial to their claim for a meaningful share in power with Taliban.
To add to our woes, Taliban may not be too happy with the way we have acted to reduce their bargaining space. For them, making any definite concessions and undertakings at this stage amounts to throwing away their legitimate bounty at the end of a long hard struggle. Our second issue is our strategic compartmentalization of Tehreek-I-Taliban in Afghanistan (TTA) and Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan (TTP) as two different and completely distinct outfits — we see the TTP simply as a combined initiative of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and India’s RAW, who have kept us bleeding internally, for which the TTA can’t be given any sympathies whatsoever. While it is correct that TTP has complete backing of NDS and RAW, the other assumption may not necessarily be correct and I have more than a few reasons to believe that such may be the case. The first and foremost is the fact that in one way or another, they do represent the same ideological stream which accepts the use of force for political and ideological objectives. At the same time irrespective of the hierarchical structure of leadership that the TTP maintains for its ranks, they have never shied from accepting the leader of the Afghan Taliban as “Ameer-ul-Momineen.” Secondly, as the Taliban undertake a complete cut-off of relations with any organization with a global jihadi agenda like Al-Qaeda or ISIS — they will not mind any proxies keeping up the pressure. Thirdly, TTP does provide them a leverage in relations with their powerful neighbors which can always come in handy. It is not a mere coincidence that as the Taliban get closer to making a comeback one way or the other, different outfits of TTP have increased their activities in tribal areas and also in cities like Rawalpindi and Karachi. The increasingly hostile sectarian scene across the country actually provides them an ideal opportunity to strike back but I am sure that we are aware of these finer links, if not at the operational levels of civil administration and police, then at least at higher forums where these actually matters.
So irrespective of the show of smiling faces on all sides or the texts of the agreements that are emailed all over the world to eagerly awaiting TV crews and printing machines, the actual worth of the outcome of talks will be determined after the US presidential elections and be based upon the ground realities at that time. Four days in to the talks and the parties haven’t even be able to agree on an agenda for talks so far — what will it take to come to an agreement, may not be that difficult to envisage. For the time being, while the agreement in Afghanistan and the mainstreaming of Israel may not ensure a second term for President Trump, it has definitely improved his prospects. The prospects for peace in Afghanistan remain grim and Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan born Special Representative of President Trump perhaps knew it well when he said in a recent interview: “If there is no positive outcome even now, the Afghans can’t blame anyone but themselves.”
The writer is a retired civil servant from the Pakistan Administrative Service, a poet, public policy practitioner and a noted expert on the socio-political and economic development of Pakistan and the South-Asian region