The conspicuous absence of internationally recognised Ghani regime raises questions about who is deciding Afghanistan's future. Afghan President is convinced the US-led endeavour is made in hurry
The US-led war in Afghanistan has completed over 17 years by now. It started on October 7, 2001, less than a month after the dastardly terror attack on the heart of America on September 11 the same year. This historic campaign, internationally known as the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) was launched by then US President George W Bush.
It was named “Operation Enduring Freedom” after Mullah Mohammad Omar-led Taliban Government refused to hand over to the US the 9/11 mastermind, Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in Afghanistan. Since then, Afghanistan has witnessed chaos, leading to loss of lives, resources, but more precisely the very Afghan sense of liberty and pride.
Today, the Afghan war, by all indications, is coming to an end. The current Afghan peace talks in Qatar is sending out positive signals so far despite off and on Taliban attacks either on the US forces or on the Afghanistan Government forces in the country.
Amid longing for peace, the most disturbing issue is that the Taliban have refused to have any direct talks with the current Afghan Government of Ashraf Ghani. To Taliban, the Government based in Kabul is a “puppet” of the Western powers. But then, the Taliban representatives have indicated that after the withdrawal of US troops from their country, they will start negotiation with the Government.
Critical actors and their independent roles in this conflict may jeopardise the Afghan peace process. Hence, it is not the Taliban and the US Government that alone could put an end to this chaos. Regional stalwarts such as India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China have carved out their own spheres of influence in this protracted war game, largely supported by an absence of a long historical narrative of the Cold War era.
Their active engagement in the peace process may mean a permanent guarantee of stability in the post-American Afghanistan.
A hasty US withdrawal from war-torn Afghanistan will be a disaster. Moreover, a namby-pamby Government in the country in a post-American departure might help resurrecting not only Taliban but also all other tribal war lords across the country. Else, the US making an exit without offering a credible solution to this war-ravaged nation would dampen American forces’ superior ability to handle hot conflict zones. Meanwhile lessons learnt from the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan necessitates a peace deal that simply sticks to its principles. Hope, Afghanistan can be saved from turning it into a “graveyard of empires”.
The US and the Taliban negotiators have agreed a draft framework for peace to bring to an end to this protracted crisis. But the talks that continued between US special envoy for Afghan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and the representatives of the Taliban have veered around two main issues: Withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan and prohibiting international terror groups from using the Afghan soil.
Meanwhile, amid Helmand attack, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a powerful deputy to the Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhunzada, who was in Pakistan jail, has joined the talks in Doha. It is hoped that his meeting with Khalilzad will help ironing out many hurdles in the coming days. What is bringing positive vibes for the first time is that another top leader Amir Khan Motaqi, chief of the Staff of the Taliban supreme leader, is also attending the talks in Qatar. This demonstrates how seriously the Taliban is viewing the ongoing talks.
However, there are some genuine spoilers that may come on the way. First, what is complicating the negotiation process is the continued violence coming from the Taliban side. Even when the talks are on in Doha this week, the Taliban fighters assaulted a large Army base in the Helmand province where also the US Mariners were present. And, this led to the death of at least two dozen Afghan soldiers. There are such inherent bottlenecks that may further delay the peace talks.
Second, the current India-Pak clashes may directly influence the Afghan peace dialogue. It is learnt that there is very strong likelihood that Pakistani troops would be shifted from the border with Afghanistan to reinforce positions on the border with India. The all too plausible risk is that this spat may finally derail the Afghan peace process. When the Trump Administration tried to lower tensions between India and Pakistan, the latter’s officials conveyed to Washington that if the war continues, it would be difficult for their country to focus on the western border. Some US officials say Pakistan does not have the capability to make peace happen with Afghanistan, but it has the capacity to spoil it for sure.
However, India-Pak tensions are just being overstated by the Pakistani establishment as to downplay the progress of the Afghan peace deal. But then a section of Western diplomats opine that if the Trump Administration pushes Islamabad too far on combating the jihadists, it could lessen its manoeuvering tactics while convincing and taming them.
What Afghanistan fears is that it can be readily used as a proxy for tension between India and Pakistan. India’s sudden air strike on JeM’s terror camps deep inside Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province last month has indeed drawn a “new red line” with Pakistan. Undoubtedly, Pakistan has played a vital role in bringing the Taliban’s to the negotiating table. It was Islamabad that released Taliban leader Baradar in 2018, with the hope that he could play a decisive role in the peace process in Doha.
Finally, trusting the deadly Taliban could be serious mistake on one hand. However, without taking the militants on board which today threaten more than 70 per cent of Afghanistan could be again a tactical mistake for any peace deal for this country and any international mediating group.
Only with guarded optimism, the international peace brokers such as the US could move ahead, else anytime Afghanistan may slip into a war zone like before. Even today regular skirmishes are on between the Taliban and the Kabul establishment, and at times with the US-led NATO troops. But bringing such senior Taliban leaders like Baradar to the negotiating table may be hailed as a record of sort for the US Administration.
America is not only fighting wars outside the precincts of its sovereign borders, but it is also encountering backlashes for its actions back home. It is worth noting here how long-drawn battles such as Afghanistan and Iraq have influenced the US armed forces and its policies.
During Obama’s second term in office, he declared the end of the combat operations in Afghanistan. By September 2014, the Afghan Government signed a treaty with the US and a similar agreement with the NATO which stated that 12, 500 foreign soldiers, of which 9,800 are Americans, will stay in Afghanistan in 2015, after the end of the NATO combat mission at the end of 2014. When Trump came to power, he increased defence spending, especially to the GWOT.
After fighting two most dangerous and long-standing wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq, even the US forces might undergo serious changes in its operational style, tactics and using high-tech gadgets. Defence Secretary Patrick Michael Shanahan is trying to probably prepare the ground for forces’ life and work, after two devastating and tiring wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The National Defence Strategy (NDS) published by the Trump Administration in January 2018 clearly changed its course of direction and decreed that America, henceforth, would focus on “long term strategic competition between nations”, namely China and Russia. In fact, this is for the first time, since the Regan era, America is planning to retool its forces by modernising its fighting architecture and technologies in war. In fact, Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, who has just completed a year in the top job, is truly confident of remoulding more than 700,000 strong armed forces in the years to come.
These are some of the policy changes that are being taken forward under the Trump regime so as to suit the new war games around the world. And, definitely, new plans are afoot to look beyond traditional battlegrounds like Afghanistan and Iraq.
What confuses the international community today is that there are two competing peace deals held on Afghanistan — one led by the US and the other by Russia. And, sadly, the popularly elected Government of Ghani is nowhere involved in these peace talks. How is this possible? Why Washington and Moscow want to sideline Kabul? Or is it the Taliban leaders that purposefully trying to hijack the peace process? Now, the point is that even if the Taliban and their sponsors want them to bypass the Ghani administration, the Mullahs should have never agreed. Again, when the US is pushing too far to conclude a peace deal in the absence of Afghanistan’s “legitimate” Government, it should have convinced the Taliban that such an agreement could spell calamity in the days to come. And, it is well understood that Putin is back in business to flex his muscles once again to demonstrate that Russia could settle the Afghan quagmire.
Nevertheless, it must be highlighted here that the conspicuous absence of internationally recognised Ghani regime. Subsequently, it raises questions about who is deciding Afghanistan’s future; whether Washington’s policy of maintaining forces in Afghanistan until the circumstances are favourable for withdrawal can outlive the bizarre wishes of Trump who desperately wants to pull out; whether we all could seriously trust the reclusive Taliban and their weird promises.
Hence, for now the prospect of these two parallel peace deals is far from clear to the world. Ghani is convinced that the US-led effort is made in a hurry. Afghanistan is an age-old war field. And, both Washington and Moscow are well aware of the consequences of falling apart with the Taliban at this crucial juncture. Equally, Ghani is feeling that Trump is cutting him out of the whole process.
If Trump pays no heed to engage the core stakeholders in Afghanistan’s long road to peace, it would all, but be crystal clear that he is playing with only fire. And, the fire will lit entire Afghanistan once again.
(The writer is an expert on international affairs)