Looks like both the US and the Taliban had gotten off their high horses and ratcheted down their initial demands for any peace deal. The current buzz words are ‘reduction in violence’, ‘de-escalation’ and ‘troop reduction’. Previously the talk was about a complete cease fire and a withdrawal of all foreign forces in Afghanistan. The end goal may still be a comprehensive peace deal but right now it would be wise to focus on what is doable and this is what has been accepted, so a US-Taliban deal is in the offing. This is good news and the credit must go to the tireless efforts of the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the full support of Pakistan.
In September 2019 an agreement had been brokered by Khalizad and the Taliban had been invited by the US President to Camp David for a signing ceremony. This was abruptly scuttled by President Trump when the Taliban accepted attack killed a US serviceman. In November 2019 during a visit to Afghanistan President Trump announced the resumption of the talks with the Taliban but in December 2019 there was what Khalilzad described as a pause—again triggered by an attack by the Taliban on Bagram Air Base. These abrupt decisions though criticized did send the right message to the Taliban. These attacks timed with the progress in talks also indicated that the Taliban did not control all violence in Afghanistan and that their acceptance of responsibility for the attacks may have been to kill the perception of division within their ranks.
The fact is that there are other groups in Afghanistan that may try to disrupt talks through targeted attacks or may sow discord in Taliban ranks and wean away fighters from the Taliban side. IS-Khorasan is the most potent presence followed by the remnants of Al Qaeda and there is also the TTP—the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan. An environment of violence and uncertainty suits these groups as it gives them ungoverned spaces from which to operate. There is also the matter of massive revenues from drugs. SIGAR in its report has indicated the sharp escalation in violence in the last three months of 2019. Considering all this the Taliban may have accepted the ‘reduction in violence and US troop presence’ as something more enforceable than a complete cease fire.
Mark Esper the US Secretary Defence has said that—“reduction in violence is on the table” The US Secretary of State Pompeo is probably briefing NATO and discussing the future of NATO in Afghanistan. Both President Ghani and his deputy Abdulla Abdullah have quoted Pompeo to indicate ‘notable progress’ and ‘optimism’. President Trump has been consistently insistent on a reduction in US troop strength in Afghanistan to about 8000—from the current 13000.
Pakistan after supporting the peace talks has decided to host an international conference on the Afghan refugee presence in Pakistan. This reality had receded into the background but it is important that all facets of this issue be highlighted and discussed. The end goal in Afghanistan must remain a complete cease fire and denial of all spaces to aliens operating from Afghanistan. This is the only way to bring peace to Afghanistan so that it ceases to be a potential base for terror. This is in US, Afghan and Pakistan’s interest. Pakistan needs to see its own interests in the agreement that is likely to come about soon.
(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to an individual)