By Imran Ali
The Afghan peace process has made an uncertain start and has as yet many a mile to go and many a hurdle to cross till it reaches fruition. There are and will be many contentious issues that will need deft and masterful handling to resolve.
However, it must first be determined which end state do these talks subscribe to? Are they aimed at eventually bringing peace to Afghanistan and handing over power to the Afghan Taliban/Haqqani Network (TTA-HN) alone or to an all-inclusive multiparty coalition? Are these to pacify and stabilise the larger Afghanistan-Pakistan Region (APR) or are they meant to eliminate Terrorism Central from it? Or are they meant to facilitate a respectable exit for the US (and foreign) forces well in time for President Trump’s inevitable 2020 re-election bid? Is it either one of these, a combination of two or more or all of the above?
Only an unambiguous and unanimous desired end state of the talks will determine the direction and the ways and means to arrive at a synchronised, synergised, practical and acceptable-to-all solution to this Afghan conundrum.
However, if the US and the TTA-HN keep totally divergent end states in mind then this very peace process carries within itself the seeds of a disaster far more horrendous than what the belligerents have endured in recent history. Failure of the peace process is not an option; else the US might end up spending a lot more time, blood and treasure there!
President Trump has said in his latest CBS interview that the US would be retaining intelligence (and military?) bases in Afghanistan post US withdrawal. US contractors/mercenaries though are only conspicuous by their absence from the narrative. This change in the US stance negates the TTA-HN’s primary demand of a complete troop withdrawal and will force it to reconsider its options. Unresolved, this issue can send the peace process into a fatal tailspin!
Russia has further complicated an already complex situation by inviting the TTA-HN along with other notable Afghan politicians including Hamid Karzai for talks in Moscow. A unity of effort and of command would have given the peace process much better chances of success. The National Unity Government (NUG) is now in an increasingly desperate situation; it being unceremoniously sidelined by both the US and Russia. Its future is written loud and clear on the Afghan wall. If ignored further, it might react to secure itself. Feeling extraordinarily coerced it might even try to scuttle the entire process rather than being left at the mercy of the marauding TTA-HN.
The next issue is a tridimensional one. The withdrawal of US and foreign forces (including contractors, all bases?), a mutual ceasefire and an intra-Afghan dialogue (with NUG) have to be coordinated extremely well. All three have to be synchronised to ensure a smooth implementation of the whole plan. The TTA-HN would want to start the intra-Afghan dialogue once the US and foreign forces have left while the US and NUG would want the intra-Afghan dialogue to reach closure prior to their exit. The US also desires an immediate ceasefire whereas the TTA-HN wants it when the US’ egress starts. All of them are critical issues. Any mishandling could cause the whole process to be derailed. An agreed to, synergetic and practical tridimensional plan is thus key to the success of the peace process.
The next hurdle to surmount is the formation of the Interim Government. The basic divergence lies in the conflicting political philosophies followed by both the TTA-HN and the NUG. The former desires the Islamic Sharia (its own interpretation) as the law of the land whereas the NUG prefers a liberal western style parliamentary democracy. Assuming an interim government/multiparty coalition is agreed upon then what form of governance will it adopt? Will the TTA-HN accept and work under the current Constitution or will a hybrid system have to be devised to accommodate both sides? Intra-Afghan parleys and perhaps a Jirga will be required to resolve this and other issues, in particular, reconciliation at the national level. Once the Interim Government has outrun its tenure fresh elections will usher in a new Government. The Afghan nation can then decide whether it wants the Islamic Sharia, a liberal western style parliamentary democracy or a hybrid system of governance for itself, for good.
The next issue will be the subjugation/elimination of the plethora of terrorist groups that abound in the wild ungoverned spaces of Afghanistan. The fencing of the Pak-Afghan border by the Pakistan Army could not have come at a more inopportune time for these terrorist groups. The Afghan Government/TTA-HN will perhaps first try to talk them into submission, failing which they will launch kinetic operations to eliminate them. Threatened with extinction they and the warlords might want to band together. They will either submit, disband, disperse, emigrate or face extermination eventually. In joint operations, the Pakistan Army and the border fencing could act as the anvil against which the ANDSF/TTA-HN hammer can crush these terrorist groups, in particular the IS, the JuA and the TTP.
The Afghan peace process still needs a lot of clarity in its strategic direction and purpose. The US and the TTA-HN need to be on the same page if they want to achieve peace. Divergent and conflicting interpretations of complex issues will lead to further confusion and disagreements and will inordinately delay the US’ egress while deferring regional peace too.
In a worst-case scenario, President Trump may feel frustrated enough, at some stage, to just declare victory and impetuously egress from Afghanistan lock, stock and barrel. This will cause Afghanistan to implode into a cataclysmic and catastrophic vortex of self-destruction. It will tend to suck in regional players like Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia, severely destabilising the region. The US might not be too averse to such an option. It will serve President Trump’s re-election bid superbly while simultaneously severely disrupting China’s CPEC and BRI and Russia’s ingress into the region.
Prudence however demands a negotiated, graduated, well controlled and peaceful transition. The US, the Afghans, Pakistan and all regional players must ensure that.
The author is a retired Brigadier of the Pakistan Army.