By Tamim Asey*
The United States is actively exploring options to end its engagement in Afghanistan and withdraw its troops from the country and at best keep a residual counter terrorism force. To this end, it has engaged with the its seventeen year adversary, the Taliban movement, to explore a peace deal – often termed by historians and experts as a troop withdrawal plan – in the absence of its partner and ally, the Afghan Government, undermining its legitimacy and further polarizing the Afghan polity. This may very well pave the way for ending the American war but igniting a frozen Afghan conflict which has the potential to escalate to a full fledged civil war with spillover effects that could seriously undermine regional stability and global security.
Many experts warn that a hasty and rushed withdrawal of the American troops, in the face of an emboldened Taliban, could only lead to a full- fledged conflict in Afghanistan with no end in sight. Here the United States have a clear choice – act in self- interest and meet domestic political campaign promises – withdraw from Afghanistan over a face-saving fragile peace deal which would later could have the potential to ignite a civil war. In such circumstances, the American will only end its war in Afghanistan and not the Afghan conflict. This way the Americans will not only lose the war but also lose the peace in Afghanistan.
The Peace Game Plan
The Afghan peace game plan is clear: President Trump has vowed to end America’s “endless wars”; the three former American Generals – Mattis, McMaster, Kelly – who were the architects and key proponents of the current South Asia strategy are no more in the White House to urge patience and advocate for the full implementation of this strategy which was announced only a year ago. The Pentagon, State Department and other US agencies are all shocked and have a choice – at best slow the pace and at worst comply and take all troops out and leave Afghans to their own fate. The Afghan Government feels betrayed, albeit holding onto its emotions for now, showing restraint and emphasizing on its partnership with the United States while the region and Afghan elites are actively planning and laying down the foundations for a post United States Afghanistan and the region. In between, the Afghan public are confused, uncertain and preparing for the worst. Meanwhile, the post 9/11 Afghan generation who enjoyed years of freedom, foreign aid and liberal democracy fear their rights are compromised and vowing to challenge any return to the past. But what is clear is “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
The Geopolitics of Peace
Just like its war the Afghan peace is not immune to the geopolitics of its neighbors and great powers. For the United States to even consider the drawdown of its troops, it will have to build not only an intra-afghan consensus in Kabul but also a geopolitical consensus at the regional and global level to ensure smooth drawdown of its troops. This will ensure that the United States is not leaving a vacuum in place for terror groups and other subversive players to fill and drag down the region to a new era of instability and insecurity.
In the current peace calculus, the Afghan government is of relative importance – given its narrow base and isolation – while the Americans, the Taliban, the region especially Pakistan- Iran and the Russian Federation together with Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates remain to be key players in the Afghan peace process. The incumbent Afghan President is – isolated, paranoid and lost – increasingly resorting to populist politics whereas the Afghan political elites are sensing the shift in the sands and shifting loyalties. The United States Special Envoy for peace, Zalmay Khalilzad, is in a rush and operates under a tight deadline to deliver a plan and roadmap for peace to Trump administration and has already agreed on a “framework agreement” with the Taliban. Here the roles of Pakistan and Qatar have been pivotal in convincing, securing and flashing out this framework agreement. More needs to be done of course to reach a final agreement. Furthermore, there are reports that the United States has been pressuring Taliban friendly countries to put pressure on the group to come on to the negotiation table with the Americans and the Afghan Government in exchange for economic assistance and other military incentives. The Qataris, Pakistanis, Saudis and other countries are taking advantage of this opportunity and are pursuing their own geopolitical and economic interests with the United States.
Meanwhile, Moscow and Tehran – the two other big elephants in the Afghan war room – have adopted at best a wait and watch attitude and at worst playing spoilers. The recent conference is a clear indication of the spoiler role that Russia could play in the Afghan peace dilemma.
Taliban Playing the Long Game
The Taliban clearly understand the shift in the sands and are preparing for a long game with a grand comeback if all goes well. Taliban leaders now act more like statesmen and send negotiation teams to various capitals and have asked for offices in the region and inside Afghanistan. The chants of yesteryears Jihad “nasru men allah e fath ul-qareeb” which translates “with God’s help victory is near” with tears of joy rolling down on their cheeks can be heard in Quetta, Peshawar and recently in Moscow. The same chants mujahidin used to celebrate their imminent victory over the Red Army when Moscow announced it is withdrawing from Afghanistan – a sense of déjà vu and return of history – prevails in cities of Pakistan and Kabul.
Furthermore, the Taliban feel that even if they don’t reach an agreement with the United States, President Trump’s waning support and patience to the Afghan war – will run out and will withdraw without a peace. They can also play the “mission failure” game with Special Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, that is to play him and prolong the negotiations until the Americans either replace or fire him. The same could apply to the Afghan Government to play the “mission doom” game and reject his peace proposal just like the North Vietnamese administration rejected Henry Kissinger’s deal reached with the South Vietnamese. All such scenarios are plausible in the Afghan peace chessboard.
An Uncertain Future
Peace deals and peace negotiations have always been fragile, unpredictable and personality driven in Afghanistan. At least in the past 30 years Afghanistan has seen less than twenty different peace negotiations, almost all ended up failing, negotiated with the help of the United Nations, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The ghosts of the past failed peace negotiations and deals are looming largely over the current US sponsored peace negotiation and the future remains uncertain. What is certain though, the fate of the Afghan people will only get worsened if the Afghan political elite don’t exercise prudence and farsightedness, history will only be able to tell us how the Afghans came out of this new chapter in their history.
*Tamim Asey is the former Afghan Deputy Minister of Defense and Director General at the Afghan National Security Council. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Security studies in London. He can be reached via twitter @tamimasey and Facebook @Tamim Asey.