In recent weeks, two important developments have taken place in relation to Afghanistan which could have far reaching implications for the region; first, senior U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, who is on fourteen sub-committees of U.S. Senate and therefore an important Republican on the Capitol Hill, visited Pakistan. He is considered close to President Trump these days as he is one of the few diehard supporters of Trump’s wall project along the Mexican border and had weighed in heavily in favor of Judge Kavanaugh during senate hearings. In the past he has been a strong critic of Pakistan. During his visit, he sought transformation of current Pak-U.S. relations from ‘transactional’ to ‘strategic’ and said that he would urge President Trump to hold a summit meeting with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. He also acknowledged Pakistan’s huge sacrifices in war on terror, on which U.S. had been reluctant to come out with clarity in the past.
Second, United States and Talibans held talks in Doha, Qatar to end the 18 years old futile and destructive war in Afghanistan. These talks have since been hailed by both sides as marking significant progress. According to U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the two sides have an understanding on a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in return for Taliban’s commitment not to let international terrorists use their country in the future. As global media hyped up the development, Khalilzad dampened the enthusiasm by tweeting that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and everything must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire’. The Taliban have been steadfastly refusing to hold talks with President Ashraf Ghani’s government which they consider as illegitimate.
The U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has gone through different phases and driven generally by its selfish instincts and ever-changing moods to cater to U.S.’ domestic environments or emerging geopolitical imperatives rather than conditions-based engagement. It has changed goalposts many times since the beginning of this war, starting as revenge for the 9/11 attacks and then changed into a mission to ensure democracy and prosperity in Afghanistan. As a result of resurgence of the Taliban and its inability to effectively control the situation on a sustainable basis, its mission has lately evolved into withdrawal with whatever face-saving is possible. Driven by impulses of an unpredictable President and an overzealous negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. now appears visibly desperate to extricate itself from the war at a moment when, unlike Afghan and coalition forces, the Taliban are neither militarily nor politically exhausted.
There have been numerous peacemaking efforts and agreements since the beginning of the conflict in 1979. The leftist Najibullah Ahmadzai, the Mujahideen-led government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, and the Western-installed governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani all pursued political settlements but failed. The current effort is a parallel process with Afghan presidential elections scheduled for July 2019, which have historically not been a smooth affair. Whether Afghanistan can simultaneously and successfully handle these two potentially tumultuous events, remains to be seen.
‘Afghanistan watchers’ will no doubt be keenly looking forward to what happens in Khalilzad’s monitored ‘Intra-Afghan Dialogue’. Some experts in U.S. have cautioned, and not without sound reasoning, that during this stage of negotiations, Talibans will agree to almost anything on the table as they are confident of influencing events to their advantage after the U.S. troops withdrawal. One of the U.S.’ biggest concerns in arriving at any peace deal would be that international terrorism doesn’t re-surface in Afghanistan. Towards this objectives, there could be a number of possible options – a U.S. military and intelligence presence, a U.S. intelligence presence alone, or a multinational presence (e.g., a follow-on to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission or a U.N. mission). But none of these mechanisms is an easy solution, considering the difficulties associated with size, capabilities, posture and mission parameters. Will the withdrawal be ‘full’ as demanded by the Taliban or will it apply to those forces engaged in combat missions and not to those advising the Afghan forces? Evolving a verification entity will also be an important facet since peace agreements of this nature are always based on verification and enforcement and not trust alone.
Funding for post-settlement reconstruction program is likely to be a major problem. Currently (2019), U.S. and its partners are committed to provide approximately $6.7 billion as security assistance. If in the post-settlement era, this funding level declines, as it happened in the case of Iraq, it will adversely affect re-building of Afghan national security forces and will begin to tilt the scales in favor of the Taliban. The country will also need to productively absorb hundreds of thousands of fighters who cannot be left without some kind of regular income for livelihood.
Given the urgency shown by President Trump, it remains to be seen how the two sides handle the pace of U.S. military pullout. There are serious apprehensions about human rights situation in the wake of a hasty withdrawal. In the past, U.S. had played up human rights violations against women and children during Taliban’s rule so it cannot remain indifferent. From Pakistan’s point of view, its deepest concern would be Afghanistan’s internal law and order situation in the wake of any settlement as it cannot afford to have another wave of Afghan refugees on its soil.
What will be the structure of a power-sharing future Afghan government formed by the Taliban and Northern Alliance? Khalilzad is obviously working on a presumption that Talibans would reconcile as a coherent entity and not splinter into groups as in the past. It is also assuming that its leadership has the ability to control any dissatisfied fighters from revolting against the terms of the final settlement. This becomes more critical in the absence of any accurate information about exact numbers of the Taliban. Estimates on their strength vary between 20,000 and 60,000, so even a small percentage of dissatisfied elements can cause enough problems for a future regime in Kabul. These fears are not without reason since the estimated current strength of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan is between 3,000 and 5,000 but have time and again demonstrated their ability to launch serious terrorist attacks.
Various ethnic, tribal and political groups in President Ashraf Ghani’s government will also need to accept the peace deal in letter and spirit for the sake of its sustainability. Any disharmony amongst them or their joining forces against the post-settlement government, could slide the country towards instability and anarchy. Mr. Khalilzad also needs to dwell on status of Haqqani group which had been the most troublesome group against U.S. and has been designated as a terrorist outfit by UN and placed in the same category as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Pakistan, apparently is of the view that it is not in its interest if the Taliban emerge as the dominant power in any future dispensation in Kabul. But will other stakeholders also refrain from promoting their interest beyond what is universally accepted as legitimate? How will Iran and India react to the emerging situation in the region as both have well known interest in that country?
Where and how does all these challenges and developments get dove-tailed with Senator Graham’s view of Pak-U.S. strategic relationship? No gainsaying that it is in Pakistan’s interest to have good relations with the U.S., but it looks highly improbable as long as Kashmir remains an unresolved dispute between India and Pakistan. U.S.’ unwillingness to exert pressure on India for a meaningful dialogue for its own reasons makes such prospects even more distant. Can Pak-U.S. strategic relations make any headway if it is underpinned with Sino-Pak relations which have deepened further since U.S.’ Pacific tilt. If the on-going tension between U.S. and China, at the center of which is the narrowing technological gap between the two and BRI initiative, is factored in, the situation becomes even more complex. Whichever way one looks at it, the U.S. only appears to be interested in a short-term engagement with Pakistan for a less disorganized exit from Afghanistan and for post-withdrawal order not to crumble too soon.
The First Afghan War (1839-1842) was described as ‘a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it’’. It is difficult to imagine how the U.S.’ longest war in this country in the 21st century, whenever it comes to an end, will be seen in any different light than the past misadventures of Britain in the 19th and former USSR’s misadventure in the 20th century.
The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of Pakistan Navy and eminent expert on national security issues.
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