Spearhead Analysis – 20.12.2018
At last there is a beam of hope that the conflict in Afghanistan may finally start moving towards resolution. President Trumps Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been super active and is using his considerable expertise to extricate the US from a situation that rivals the Viet Nam debacle in scale and dimension. After spending enormous resources and sacrificing precious (US, NATO, Afghan and Pakistani) lives the US sees a dismal picture in Afghanistan. There is no letup in Taliban attacks. Poppy cultivation is at an all-time high. Almost 60% of the country is under Taliban control or disputed. Strategies that focused on a democratic order, on provincial reconstructs, on changing the social order, on a military victory, on air power, on drones and on a decisive elimination of the Taliban all stand defeated. With Afghan security force losses at an unsustainable level the situation is not stale mated—it is lost and war lords are eyeing the scene carefully. President Trump took the right decision by appointing Zalmay Khalilzad and by reaching out to Pakistan—an outreach somewhat diluted by the views he expressed in tweets.
From all accounts the meeting in UAE facilitated by Pakistan and with Saudi and UAE participation has gone well and has been ‘productive’. If the Taliban asked for an interim government under a neutral President as a prelude to a six-month cease fire it not an unreasonable request. Nor is the call for a delay in Afghan Presidential elections if linked to the cease fire condition. US bases in Afghanistan may be a sticking point but the possibility of drastic scaling down prior to a total withdrawal could be considered. Other issues like prisoners’ release and non-targeting of civilians can be positive steps. The important thing is that the dialogue took place and that progress has been made—and most importantly there is agreement on more talks. All sides pushing for a resolution of the conflict need to be wary of those who are exploiting the conflict situation for their own agendas and may trigger events to throw a spanner in the ongoing work. Peace and stability in Afghanistan will be a huge boost for the entire region so instead of looking for winners and losers the focus should be on cooperation.
Pakistan’s stand has been vindicated and its policy of mature restraint to threats and baseless allegations has paid off. Pakistan had first highlighted the fact that the uncertainty created by shifting US policies and strategies was a problem that had to be resolved before any meaningful steps could be taken. Pakistan’s understanding of the Pashtun population on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border and its refusal to target the Taliban who had an agenda within Afghanistan kept it on a steady course to push for dialogue and reconciliation to end the conflict. Pakistan clearly demonstrated its resolve, determination and capacity when it undertook operations to evict and sideline the TTP (Tehreek Taliban Pakistan). Now that the US has signaled its intention to end the conflict and withdraw and has entered into meaningful negotiations with the Taliban Pakistan has moved to facilitate the process. Pakistan is poised and ready to play a pivotal role.
The danger is that an impatient President Trump may get fed up and order unilateral action to pull the US out. His decision to get out of Syria makes this a possibility that cannot be totally discounted. So all those with stakes in the ongoing process should be facilitators and no obstructive elements should be tolerated. A sudden or even premature US departure could trigger internal conflict within Afghanistan especially if the watching warlords and Afghanistan’s neighbors decide to jump in and take sides. A north south divide—deliberate or de facto—would have totally negative and disastrous consequences as the IS and their allies may find a home. The Afghanistan oriented Afghan Taliban may have to make compromises with those who may have agendas beyond Afghanistan and even beyond the region. These dangers highlight the supreme importance of the US staying the course and the stake holders including the Afghan government moving rapidly to bring about a deliberate stage-wise end to the conflict in Afghanistan. As of now the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan are acting in their own interests and addressing each other’s concerns –and this makes for convergence of interests. The opportunity that the situation presents must not be lost.
(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to an individual)