High time for a final US exit from Afghanistan!

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By Javed Hafeez

The US, Russia and China all appear anxious for an early peace settlement in Afghanistan. This consensus is juxtaposed to their divergent policies on many other issues, creating the perception of a creeping new cold war. Lately, they have brought Pakistan into the centre stage in order to accelerate the Afghan peace process. 

President Trump wants US troops back home before elections next year. At a recent Afghan peace conference in Pakistan, which I attended and where members of Afghan opposition, civil society, media and gender rights groups were present, one could discern a clear war fatigue and a resultant yearning for peace. 

Current optimism about peace in Afghanistan is not without basis. US-Taliban talks in Doha were followed by intra-Afghan talks of sorts. These negotiations, which Taliban insist were attended by Kabul government representatives in their individual capacity, were given the unorthodox nomenclature of ‘non-talks.’ The Doha round was succeeded by the quadrilateral talks attended by special envoys of three world powers and Pakistan in Beijing. The moot endorsed the need for intra-Afghan negotiations for a peace framework that would include the “orderly and responsible transition of security situation.”

However, there are many imponderables to be addressed before genuine peace is achieved. Will the Taliban agree to work under the current constitution? Should presidential elections in Afghanistan be decoupled from the negotiations? Should US troop presence be brought down to zero by next year? And if the troops are completely withdrawn, who will ensure that the framework for peace is implemented in letter and spirit? Who will monitor the ceasefire so essential to any progress towards a durable peace? And more importantly, should the negotiations for a durable intra-Afghan peace be rushed through or be allowed to proceed gradually?

A sudden withdrawal of foreign troops could be a recipe for disaster. The world saw this after the withdrawal of Soviet forces when the US and its allies lost interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan, thinking the Afghans could manage their country. A long and bloody power struggle ensued and culminated in the rise of the Taliban. Abrupt withdrawal of foreign troops could result in a replay of history. The government in Kabul partially draws its influence from the physical presence of foreign troops. 11% of Afghan GDP is related to expenditure on foreign troops.

But President Trump has a streak of surprising others. Last December, he suddenly announced that half of the US troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan. This caused fissures in his own cabinet and Defence Secretary James Mattis resigned. In the first half of 2019, the internal struggle for power in Afghanistan gained momentum and IS made its presence felt to all and sundry.

Pakistan’s role in Afghan peace efforts  has now been internationally recognized. Its pre-settlement role was to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and to coax them to continue talking to their interlocutors. Now, the Taliban are being asked to ensure that in the post-settlement period, militant entities like Al Qaeda and IS will not be allowed a foothold in Afghanistan. The indications are that Pakistan will be expected to monitor this. Traditionally, Pakistan has favoured a phased withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan although its stance is now more nuanced. Ideally, the troop withdrawal should be linked to progress in negotiations. This will provide incentive to the Taliban to show flexibility. 

Peace in Afghanistan, nicknamed the ‘graveyard of empires,’ has to come from within; from intra-Afghan dialogue and its resultant agreements underwritten by regional and global powers. I have had the opportunity to represent Pakistan as an observer in the inter-Tajik talks, and those talks reached a successful conclusion because the Dushanbe government had the full backing of Moscow. Moreover, a division of Russian troops was stationed in Tajikistan and ultimately, a power sharing formula evolved that was acceptable to both parties.

It appears that the US, under Trump, is ready to exclude Afghanistan from its sphere of influence and pass the baton on to China and Russia. China is keen on an early peace in Afghanistan as it lies on the margins of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Russia wants a stable and peaceful Afghanistan as it contemplates the east-west corridor linking it with India and East Asia. Connectivity is the buzz word these days and peace in the heart of Asia will benefit the entire region. Pakistan will be a major beneficiary through higher trade with its neighbor.

Afghanistan will need a Marshall Plan of its own for the reconstruction of its war ravaged economy, and US, China and Russia could share the development costs. That means the time for the final exit of the US has not really arrived because stability and economic development in Afghanistan should be and is in the interests of the Americans.

(Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst. Twitter: @hafiz_javed)