(Afghaninstan) The end game -- the second phase

Daily: Weekly Cutting Edge
Date: 01.02.19

The expected endgame in Afghanistan is becoming apparent with both sides, the US and
the Afghan Taliban, imposing certain conditions on each other. The US thinks that it cannot
withdraw its forces from Afghanistan unless the Afghan Taliban agree to two conditions.
First, the Afghan Taliban should also negotiate with the Kabul regime. Second, the Afghan
Taliban should announce a ceasefire. On the other hand, the Afghan Taliban demand a
complete withdrawal of the US (and foreign) forces from Afghanistan, and no negotiations
with the Kabul regime because the Afghan Taliban refuse to recognize the Kabul
government.

Therein lies the rub. The Kabul government is the product of elections held under the
Afghan Constitution (which is both presidential and federal). If the Afghan Taliban do not
recognize the Kabul government, it means that they do not recognize the legitimacy of
elections and the Afghan Constitution. The legitimacy of any elections such as the 2014
Afghan elections can be impugned by levelling allegations of electoral rigging, but then it
means that next time transparent elections should be held. It does not mean that no
elections are required to be held. Similarly, it does not mean that the Afghan Constitution is
an inoperable document doomed for roll up.

The Doha talks, initiated in 2013, were a major feat of US diplomacy to bring the Afghan
Taliban to the table. At that time, former President Hamid Karzai devalued the Doha talks
and he impatiently denigrated the US officials engaged in the talks. On the other hand, the
US officials opined that the Afghan Taliban were representing a segment of Afghan society
and hence negotiations with them was plausible to give peace a chance to prevail. To the
solace of the US, Afghanistan’s new President Ashraf Ghani did not raise any objections to
the Doha talks.

With the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad in September 2018, as US Special Envoy on
Afghanistan, a breakthrough appeared. In October 2018, not only Pakistan released Mullah
Baradar, but the US also set free five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Their
release offered legitimacy to Khalilzad and value to the Doha talks. On the other side, since
December 2017, there was going on a parallel round of talks with the help of China
mediating negotiations between Pakistan and Kabul. The objective was to iron out
differences, if any, between Pakistan and the Kabul regime. The propinquity between
Pakistan and China was cashed in on, and it was ensured that Pakistan had no objection to
the Kabul regime’s legitimacy.

Now, the second phase of peace negotiations has started. This phase is more inclusive
than the previous one. In this phase, the help of Saudi Arabia has been sought to convince
the Afghan Taliban to accept the presence of the Kabul regime in negotiations. In
response, the Afghan Taliban have withdrawn, in consistent with their policy of non-
recognition of the Kabul regime. With that, the real test of endurance and perseverance of
all the parties concerned starts.

Pakistan was instrumental in nudging the Afghan Taliban to the Doha talks. Pakistan has
been asked again to bring the Taliban to negotiations with the Kabul regime at the talks,
whether they take place in Riyadh or Doha.

The strategy to do this is simple. Put pressure on Pakistan, as US President Donald Trump
did on 1 January, 2018, by reproving Pakistan publicly through his twitter handle. Trump
called Pakistan a liar and deceitful. The strategy worked effectively, since Pakistan quickly
responded publicly by showing its cards. That is, the US was not recognizing Pakistan’s
sacrifices in the war on terror.

On 20 January, 2019, on the invitation of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood
Qureshi, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham visited Pakistan and offered all the correct
words Pakistan was desperate to hear. Pakistan was not playing any double game in
Afghanistan; five-thousand Pakistani soldiers died fighting the war on terror; and Pakistan’s
incumbent prime minister was correct in saying that negotiations with the Afghan Taliban
was a better way out. Graham’s utterances made Pakistan feel elated and accredited.

Graham was also sharp enough to exploit Pakistan’s favourite words, the game changer,
and offered a carrot of the possibility of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two
countries (meant for the integration of economies) in return for Pakistan’s efforts to
convince the Afghan Taliban to accommodate the Kabul regime at the negotiating table.
Graham said, “With the Prime Minister Khan, we have a unique opportunity to change our
relationship to go from transactional to strategic; the way to do that is to integrate our
economies, the FTA.” Graham further said, “ the IMF loan will stabilize in the shorter term of
Pakistan’s economy but if we could ever one day get to integrated FTA, integrated
economies between Pakistan and the US, that’s a game changer for Pakistan.” In response,
Pakistan feels obliged and rejuvenated.

There is another dimension of the endgame in Afghanistan. The US has indicated a partial
(or phased) withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan, but under certain guarantees such as
a residual force would be left for conducting counterterrorism operations in case any
renegade sub-group of the Afghan Taliban erupted into a revolt or any neo-al-Qaeda takes
refuge in Afghanistan. To forestall such eventualities, the Afghan Taliban have only verbal
assurances to offer. More than that, the US has shown its concern regarding the
vulnerability of the Kabul regime and it is not ready to leave it to the mercy or goodwill of
the Afghan Taliban.

The major claim of victory of the Afghan Taliban lies in the US’ announcement of the
withdrawal of its troops. To achieve this end, the Afghan Taliban are vociferously
demanding a timeline for the withdrawal of troops. The Afghan Taliban also demand the
release of prisoners from US custody, besides lifting the travel ban on the Taliban leaders.

It is apparent that giving a definite timeline is hard for the US because any terrorist incident
in Afghanistan has the potential of halting peace and threatening the existence of the Kabul
regime. The relevant point is that, in Afghanistan, the US’ allies including the European
Union, Japan, Australia and India have invested millions of dollars in the reconstruction of
the worn torn country. Any escalation of a conflict would have the potential to ruin the past
efforts. Allies are not apparent on the scene, but it is understandable that the US cannot
ignore their concerns.

The US sees the solution in an intra-Afghan dialogue. The dialogue is important for two
reasons. First, the dialogue is important to preclude the repeat of the post-1991 civil war in
Afghanistan. Second, the dialogue is important to secure the investment of time and money
of the US and allies in Afghanistan. The US is interested in both. The US is interested in the
first because any civil war would take Afghanistan back to the benighted era infested with
Islamic fundamentalists. The US is interested in the second because the allies may not
divert more resources to try another time to reconstruct Afghanistan.

In short, the endgame in Afghanistan has entered the second phase, which is defined by
the Afghan Taliban’s acceptance of the Kabul regime on the negotiation table and then
recognizing the regime’s legitimacy publicly. The third phase would be to recognize the
Afghan Constitution.

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