Afghanistan: A Game with Many Variables

After many years of conflict in Afghanistan, the destructive impact of a complex set of internal contradictions and the frequent change of priorities in the approaches of external players have further aggravated tensions in this strategically important part of Central Asia.

The complex tangle of inter-community and inter-clan disagreements, differences in the approaches of the authorities of several leading provinces toward the agenda for intra-Afghan dialogue, as well as general tension in the country once again confirm the inefficiency of any efforts to end the war, except negotiations between the conflicting parties: the Taliban , the central authorities and the Americans. All this is worsened by the fact that each side is torn between different, often totally opposite approaches. At the same time, there is some distrust within the Taliban movement regarding the deal with the Americans. Republican Zalmay Khalilzad, the old fox, who served in Afghanistan under the Reagan and Bush administrations and was involved in the reconciliation process as the president’s special envoy, worked out the details of a future deal with the Taliban and most likely thought about the possible withdrawal of the United States from the "game" under the guise of some “victory plan,” or perhaps as a respite.

One way or another, the signing of an agreement with the Taliban and the beginning of the American troops’ withdrawal according to Donald Trump’s plan, as well as 5,000 Taliban supporters being granted amnesty by the newly-sworn president Ashraf Ghani, has given some hope for the beginning of a peace process. But according to many experts, such a perception of the situation in the country can be misleading. Armed groups affiliated with ISIS  continue to operate in the so-called “pro-Taliban” regions, as evidenced by US preventive military operations in the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Kunduz and Nangarhar. Prominent political analyst Barnett Rubin, in one of his publications in Foreign Affairs, quotes General John Nicholson, former commander of the US military contingent in Afghanistan, as saying that the United States and the Afghan government are in a “deadlock”. Proponents of continued pressure on the Taliban in the Pentagon fear the latter’s strengthening in line with a scenario akin to the one that played out in the late 80s, after the Soviet military contingent had withdrawn. Rubin argues in his warnings that the 1988 Geneva agreements between Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USSR and the USA provided for the withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Afghanistan by February 1989, while Pakistan and the United States were to stop providing assistance to the Mujahideen, based in Pakistan, by May 1988. However, these agreements did not provide for any political settlement inside Afghanistan, which subsequently led to chaos and civil war in the country. Therefore, given the controversial, extremely problematic situation at hand, it is impossible to rule out the repetition of that negative outcome.

The US and the Taliban: Uncertainty About the Peace Agreement
Andrey Kazantsev
Prospectively, the Taliban unity will hinge on whether or not it wants to integrate into a peaceful political process, writes Andrey Kazantsev, Director of the Analytical Center of the MGIMO University’s Institute for International Studies. Paradoxically, it will be of more use for its internal unity if the Taliban just attempts to seize power under the pretext of imposing peace (which means continuing the civil war in a different guise).

Negotiations were always the best tool for diplomacy in finding ways out of the crisis, and the Taliban has moved beyond the inefficiency of direct dialogue with the central government without international support from important regional states and platforms, including the Tashkent and Moscow consultation formats, which was emphasised by Mullah Baradar Akhund, head of the movement’s office in Qatar. However, any assumptions about the particular effects of the current agreements are clearly premature. In accordance with the deal which was reached, the number of American troops will be reduced to 8,600 within 135 days, and the Taliban will commit itself to fighting against international terrorism as part of any future government they enter. It is not clear whether the parties are able to work out a mechanism for multilateral and open monitoring that guarantees the exclusion of any support for terrorists, or their elimination in any uncontrolled territory where various groups could hide. It is unlikely that the Quetta Shura, as the governing force of the Taliban, could neutralise or even refuse to cooperate with al-Qaeda or ISIS in Afghanistan. So the hostilities could continue for an indefinite period of time. Undoubtedly, the Afghan government will remain in power only with substantial economic assistance from such regional partners as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, China, Russia and India, as well as constant US financial subsidies and military assistance, without which various destructive groups will be able to expand in the country more freely. Therefore, any conclusions are premature at this time, and time will dot all the “i’s”.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.