US Withdrawal, Afghan Peace and Strategic Conundrum

The US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted, “I hope this is the last Eid where Afghanistan is at war.” Khalilzad is not negating the fact that the President Trump hopes to see the entire withdrawal process completed before the 2020 US presidential election campaign. The US and Taliban negotiators are hinting at a positive outcome after eight long rounds of “Doha talks”. For Washington, peace in Afghanistan has been coupled with its own domestic political agenda, and therefore, apparently, there are risks associated with delaying a final agreement any further.

This should not prevent the Trump administration from strategizing an exit from Afghanistan which would allow the troops to depart with their heads held high. However, the Taliban may never accept a general ceasefire, and the insurgents have so far refused to negotiate with Kabul's representatives. This is because the Taliban considers the Afghan government to be a US puppet, and hence only talks with the US are considered key to resolving ceasefire issues and those related to governance.

Against the backdrop of realities on the ground in Afghanistan, it has been assessed that a final peace agreement between the US and the Taliban may not be possible as yet. It has also been assessed that if a comprehensive peace accord is not reached, the US troops will not be withdrawn from Afghanistan – portending more violence in the restive central Asian country.  

What exactly are the realities on the ground? The first is that Taliban control roughly half of Afghanistan, and the presence of US forces has multiplied the deaths of Afghan and Allied soldiers. More than 2,400 American service members have died in Afghanistan since the US entered the conflict in 2001. Secondly, President Trump seeks to become a “President of Peace”, but it is obvious that within the US administration, there are diverse opinions on Afghan policy, which is constantly undermining the negotiation process.

Two sets of reasons are causing “delay and complexity”, even after the eight rounds of Doha peace talks: a) The “Doha talks” have only been effective in terms of “keeping the Taliban interested”, and no tangible results have emerged, especially in terms of a comprehensive US withdrawal and determining how the Taliban will be accommodated in the governance of Afghanistan – and b) there is a clear disconnect between the US approach and regional cooperation to support an Afghan-led-and-Afghan-owned peace. The Taliban are clearly demanding the complete withdrawal of all US troops, including its counter-terrorism advisors, as a guarantee has been given that Afghan soil will not be used to attack US interests.

If one is to assess President Trump's policy in Afghanistan, it’s problematic in terms of the operationalisation of resources, and has been met with pessimism among US Democrats. Trump’s Peace Doctrine is based on unorthodox diplomatic interventions, and creating a new normal in foreign relations. North Korea and Syria are two clear examples. This approach also contains unstructured diplomatic methods, and thus achieving desired results also becomes risky. It is this complexity which may also contribute to further security issues in Afghanistan.  

Another issue is related to the consequences of the failure of Trump’s peace efforts in Afghanistan. It is believed that the Taliban may multiply their attacks on the Afghan government, in order to discredit and weaken Ghani’s administration before the US presidential elections. In the wake of such a scenario, the role of China and Russia will become very crucial, and hence a contingency plan to deal with the aftermath of a partial agreement or no agreement between the US and Taliban is vital.

The strategic interests of Russia in securing peace in Afghan should be based on two main objectives. Firstly, Russia should continue to support the establishment of a cooperative environment between the Afghan government and the Taliban, because this is the single most important impediment hindering the establishment of permanent peace in Afghanistan. Secondly, focusing on a regional solution must also be a source of shared responsibility.

It is possible to conclude that a complete withdrawal of the US troops and a working relationship between Taliban and the Afghan government should be the desired outcome of any peace effort. The Taliban should also agree not to bring in any foreign Non-State Actors (NSAs), including IS and al Qaeda, to operate on Afghan soil. However this would be a mischaracterisation of reality as the Taliban does not control all of Afghanistan. Once a peace accord is signed, Afghanistan's 'on the ground government and the Taliban should join hands in neutralising the support system of IS and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The author is a Director General of Pakistan House, an independent think tank of international affairs.   

Americans in Afghanistan: Ignoring Lessons of the Soviet Intervention
Olga Oliker
Eighteen years after the U.S. went to war, the parallels with Russia’s experience seem obvious. Not least of them is the difficulty of leaving Afghanistan. Donald Trump promises American troops will be gone by November of 2020. Barack Obama made similar promises in 2014 and 2016. Similarly, Mikhail Gorbachev decided it was time to get out in 1986, but Soviet forces only left in 1989.
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