Afghan political settlement and US withdrawal


By Salman Bashir

Reports of President Trump’s decision to start the withdrawal in the coming weeks of some 7,000 of the 14,000 American forces stationed in Afghanistan may well have torpedoed any chance of a political settlement.

Precipitating the withdrawal of American troops,  even as the US Special Envoy Ambassador Zalmay Khalizade was engaged in talks with the Afghan Taliban in Abu Dhabi and extensively consulting regional countries, is indicative of the discordant notes that have become a hallmark of policy-making in Washington D.C. and coordination processes under the present American administration.

President Trump had been wary of the US military entanglement in Afghanistan from the very beginning. His instincts were correct that this is an unwinnable war, the longest in contemporary history and a sheer drain on U.S. resources.

Indeed, America has lost considerable troops in this war and hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been killed and maimed. Some 46 billion dollars are being spent annually and the total cost over 17 years exceeds one trillion dollars. All this while the rag tag Taliban fighters who believe that they are engaged in a fight of national liberation against foreign occupation have been gaining ground. The Afghan National Security Forces have suffered enormous casualties and are in no position to defend major cities, including Kabul, without American support. 

The U.S. National Security establishment had grossly underestimated the ground realities. The initial U.S. objective was primarily to decimate the Al Qaeda. This was effectively achieved with invaluable support from Pakistan but then the U.S. got itself involved in a civilizing mission of nation building.

The real issue has been definitional. While to Pakistan, it seemed to be an extended Afghan civil war, for the U.S. the conflict in Afghanistan ranged from counter terrorism to counter insurgency.

Pakistan had always advised the U.S. to use its considerable influence to promote a political settlement. The key phrase “an Afghan led and Afghan owned process” of national reconciliation was enunciated by Pakistan in the first place in 2008.

Pakistan had also advised that the key issue of under development of Afghanistan needs to be addressed. Socio-economic development are an absolute must to provide a durable foundation for building sustained and sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

The U.S. decision to upgrade its contacts with the Taliban to formal talks came too late. Khalizade was entrusted with the responsibility to promote a political settlement in September 2018.  It now seems that President Trump may have felt that a political settlement could not be achieved in a short timeframe.

Trump’s priorities from the American national perspective are well known. He believes that the U.S. should not squander its resources on foreign military ventures. This also explains his decision to order a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria. But at a time when the world requires stability and peace, the U.S. seems to be abnegating its self-assumed global security responsibilities, which could have unsettling consequences especially in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

As for Afghanistan, the question is whether the Taliban, who have been demanding American troop withdrawal, would now be inclined to demonstrate maturity and sagacity in reaching out to all Afghans,  including the Tajiks and Hazaras, promoting genuine and all inclusive peace and avoiding a power grab.

The establishment of an interim administration, sanctified by legal means and Afghan traditions such as the loya jirga or through other constitutional steps, could provide an opportunity to prevent Afghanistan from lapsing into another round of a more pronounced civil war. This must be avoided at all costs.

The convening of the Quadripartite Consultative Group (QCG) meeting including Afghanistan, US, China and Pakistan, to which the Taliban are also invited, could help change the context of the Afghanistan situation from internecine fraternal strife to meaningful cooperation for development.

The international community and especially the immediate neighbours of Afghanistan should use their influence to calm the situation. The announcement of a ceasefire for six months with sequential steps for reaching a peaceful political settlement encompassing all Afghans must remain the objective of all well-wishers of the Afghan people.

(The author Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and ambassador to China. Twitter: @SalmanB_Isb. Article courtesy Arab News))