Grave uncertainties plague Afghan quest for peace


By Talmiz Ahmed

Afghanistan is awash with reports of both war and peace — at the same time. Last week, 2,000 Taliban fighters began a siege of a government compound and army base in the western Badghis province, with at least 36 Afghan security personnel killed.

Just three weeks earlier, on March 12, after 16 days of marathon talks in Doha, the US and Taliban delegations announced they had agreed on two crucial issues: A timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and a Taliban commitment not to support extremist groups in their territory and ultimately to remove them from the country.

The US-Taliban talks have been ongoing since late last year, when President Donald Trump reluctantly agreed to delay the withdrawal of the remaining 14,000 US troops from Afghanistan by appointing former ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation to negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban. After a slow start, the talks have moved fairly constructively since January and have acquired considerable momentum with the March agreement.

The prospect of peace is most alluring. The US is spending about $45 billion annually in Afghanistan, of which less than a billion dollars is set aside for development. Since 2015, about 30,000 Afghan security personnel have been killed, while civilian casualties have been 3,000 per year. Demoralized by sustained Taliban attacks, government forces have witnessed large-scale desertions, meaning they are far below their sanctioned strength.

Cumulatively, over the last 18 years, the US has spent $800 billion in the country and has suffered more than 2,400 fatalities in the longest war in its history. Afghanistan was described as the world’s most lethal conflict zone in 2018, providing 30 percent of global casualties.

Both the US and the Taliban recognize that they have a long way to go and, given their conflictual history and divergent interests, much could still go wrong. The US prioritizes an intra-Afghan dialogue and the attainment of a country-wide ceasefire. The principal interest of the Taliban is speedy US withdrawal. It has little interest in engaging with the government in Kabul, led by President Ashraf Ghani, which it sees as a US puppet, and thus retains the right to militarily engage with government forces and inflict casualties.

As with most complex agreements, the final outcome of the Afghan peace process will be determined by details such as: The schedule of the phased withdrawal of US troops, and the US’ security role in the country after the bulk of its troops have left; and arrangements for monitoring the implementation of the agreement. A contentious matter will be dialogue between the Taliban and the Kabul government to finalize power-sharing and the division of security responsibilities in different parts of the country.

Ghani, deeply distressed at being excluded from the Doha talks, has announced his own four-point “peace plan.” This plan demands that Pakistan desist from backing the violent activities of the Taliban in Afghanistan, calls for a new economic approach that would make Afghanistan self-sufficient, and insists on an “inclusive” peace process that respects the country’s constitution and the “core values” of the republic.

As the peace process trudges forward, Afghanistan is increasingly becoming a competitive arena for regional rivals Pakistan and India. Pakistan envisages a scenario in which it will emerge as the dominant power in the country against the Ghani government that it sees as “pro-India.” Islamabad is confident that US anxiety to leave Afghanistan will ensure a speedy agreement, with the Taliban giving assurances of eschewing extremism and violence that would give the US the face-saver it needs to withdraw as quickly as possible.

India is naturally appalled at the consolidation of the Taliban in Kabul, viewing it as an obscurantist group that is capable of exporting its extremist violence across the region. Hence, India sees no advantage in engaging with the Taliban and instead believes its interests lie in supporting the Ghani government.

However, the Taliban are no puppets of Pakistan and on important issues have disagreed with it in the past. For example, they refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to the Pakistanis in 1998, destroyed the Bamiyan statues despite Pakistani pleas, and have refused to recognize the Durand Line, the formal Pakistan-Afghanistan boundary. Hence, Pakistan has every reason to be concerned that the Taliban, in a position to declare “victory” after the US withdrawal, might follow independent domestic and foreign policies, which could include broadening engagements with other regional players such as Iran, China, Russia and possibly India.

Pakistan may also find that its zero-sum approach to India in Afghanistan could actually jeopardize its interests in terms of its economic ties with Afghanistan and, through that country, with Central Asia and beyond, even as India expands its economic links with the region through Chabahar.

The scenario emerging in Afghanistan is fraught with grave uncertainties and the confident assumptions of the past might not be applicable in the new circumstances that shape the beleaguered country.

(Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.)