Current diplomacy may lead to either a political settlement which brings a semblance of peace to Afghanistan and the region or a unilateral or disorderly US-Nato withdrawal which sets the stage for the next iteration of Afghanistan’s 40-year civil war. Yet, other scenarios are possible, as several forces clash and coalesce in the endgame.
The most visible force is the momentum of the Afghan Talibaninsurgency. It is now dominant in 60pc of the country and exerting relentless pressure on the demoralised Afghan security forces. Brimming with self-confidence, the Taliban refuse to negotiate peace with the beleaguered Ashraf Ghani government and want to talk only to the US about a timetable for withdrawal of foreign forces, release of Taliban prisoners and lifting of travel and other restrictions on Taliban leaders. The Taliban no doubt anticipate that after US-Nato withdrawal, they will be able to impose a political settlement on other Afghan parties.
The Taliban’s resilience and determination is mirrored by US President Donald Trump’s frustration and impatience. His unilateral announcement that half the (14,000) US troops will be soon withdrawn from Afghanistan has panicked and marginalised the Kabul government and eroded US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s leverage in negotiating with the Taliban. Consequently, the role and influence of regional powers has expanded significantly.
Among them, Pakistan is presumed to enjoy the greatest influence due to its perceived relationship with the ascendant Taliban. Islamabad confirmed its influence in arranging for the participation of high-level Taliban representatives in the recent Abu Dhabi talks.
However, Iran’s influence has grown considerably in recent times. It has carefully cultivated relations with and provided support to the Taliban while also preserving its traditional links with components of the former Northern Alliance. Tehran will not ease America’s exit from Afghanistan.
Russia has dealt itself in the game, opening cooperation with the Taliban and attempting to initiate an intra-Afghan dialogue through the ‘Moscow format’.
India fears that an Afghan political settlement will lead to restoration of a Taliban-led government. It is now scrambling to preserve its ‘assets’ in Afghanistan through the good offices of Iran and Russia.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE entered the peace process by hosting the third round of the US-Taliban talks. But the limits of their influence are evident from the Taliban’s refusal to attend the next round in Riyadh due to Saudi insistence that they talk to Kabul. Pushed aside by the Saudis, Qatar seems more accommodative of the Taliban’s resistance to intra-Afghan dialogue.
China holds the most important ‘unplayed’ cards in the game. It has the financial and diplomatic clout to bring all the regional players — Pakistan, Iran, Russia and the Central Asians — on board. Obviously, these cards will be played by Beijing in the context of the current tense transition in the wider US-China relationship.
In the next stage of talks, the US, theoretically, could meet most of the Taliban demands — a withdrawal timetable, release of Taliban prisoners, and lifting of travel bans on leaders. There are, however, two issues which could bedevil the US-Taliban process: one, a post-settlement US counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan; and two, an intra-Afghan dialogue.
The US wants to leave behind a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan. The Taliban, reportedly, were not opposed to this in the initial talks with the US. This may change especially if Iran and Russia oppose such a continuing US presence. A compromise may be a multinational counterterrorism capability.
The Taliban’s reluctance to talk to the Kabul regime has emerged as the most important obstacle. The Taliban argue that they are the legal government which was forcibly ousted in 2001. They may also fear that intra-Afghan negotiations and a ceasefire could arrest the insurgency’s momentum and divide their fractious movement.
However, the Taliban may be in danger of overplaying their hand. Despite Trump, the US security establishment will not accept humiliation in Afghanistan. Khalilzad’s talk or fight rhetoric in Kabul may not be all bluster. Without a face-saving formula for an orderly withdrawal, the US may revert to more aggressive options eg privatising the war, as recommended by ex-Blackwater’s Erik Prince; installing a hardliner like Hanif Atmar in Kabul to continue the fight; extending clandestine support to elements of the militant Islamic State in Khorasan group (which Russia and Iran allege is happening already) against the Taliban; conduct a campaign of assassination against Taliban leaders.
Moreover, the Taliban may face regional resistance. Even as Iran encourages the Taliban’s refusal to talk to Kabul, its foreign minister has declared — in New Delhi — that Tehran would not want the Taliban to be the dominant force in a future government. Russia would want a balanced outcome also. China, like Pakistan, may accept a Taliban-led government; but it would prefer a negotiated rather than an imposed settlement.
The Taliban have played the game well so far; it is time to cash in the chips. A Taliban military victory will be thwarted by both the US and some of the regional powers.
Pakistan’s strategic objectives would be best served by a durable political settlement. Islamabad is favourably placed to evolve diplomatic solutions to the two main issues in the US-Taliban talks.
A multinational or UN counterterrorism force can be established by the UN and/ or the OIC.
An interim or neutral government in Kabul, pending presidential polls, accompanied by a time-bound ceasefire, may provide the space for an intra-Afghan agreement on a power-sharing formula as well as an orderly withdrawal of US-Nato forces from Afghanistan. The Afghan parties could be offered appropriate incentives to accept a settlement, including commitments of future financial support from the US, Europe, China and the GCC.
Islamabad’s positive diplomatic role, coordinated with China, and responsive to the interests of other regional players, must also be leveraged to advance Pakistan’s interests: normalisation of Pakistan-US relations; elimination of Balochistan Liberation Army and TTP terrorism from Afghan territory; return of Afghan refugees, and expansion and smooth implementation of CPEC, its acceptance by the US, and the GCC’s partnership in the enterprise.
Munir Akram is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.