The United States (US) under President Donald Trump may have made many controversial decisions. However, the administration’s Afghanistan policy ostensibly has registered marked improvement as the president wants to put an end to the longest overseas military entanglement of Washington as soon as possible. Recently, President Trump has been found to be increasingly impatient to see an end to the Afghan war so that US could withdraw its remaining troops from the war-torn country at the earliest.
This is despite the fact that previous American President Barack Obama signed a mutual defence deal with Afghanistan way back in 2014. The US and Afghanistan had finalized the terms of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) after years of delay and painstaking negotiations. The agreement came into force when the traditional Afghan Grand Jirga and the Afghan Parliament had ratified it. Under the BSA Washington had a justification for the continued stay of 8,000 to 12,000 US troops and a string of military bases across Afghanistan to provide security to the Afghan state and government from internal and external threats. Before finalizing the BSA the US had announced that it would withdraw all its combat troops from Afghanistan by December 31, 2014.
Now President Trump seems to have revisited the BSA and wants to withdraw at least half of its troops stationed in Afghanistan by the approaching summer. Presently, the US has around 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, mostly providing support to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to fight the Taliban. In order to facilitate this withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the US already has started talking with the Afghan Taliban. Recently the two sides engaged in talks with the United Arab Emirates in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan also participated. The direct US-Taliban talks did not cut much ice. However, the most important aspect of the talks were that they were facilitated by Islamabad as President Trump had asked for such help from Prime Minister Imran Khan, which he graciously extended.
On the other hand the first round of direct talks between Washington and the Taliban has open vistas of future talks and recently the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, who led the US side in the UAE talks came to Pakistan and expressed optimism that further talks between his country and the Taliban would soon take place. In the meanwhile, Washington requested Pakistan not only to facilitate talks but also to host Washington-Taliban talks. Although the Taliban immediately refused to come to Pakistan and meet Khalilzad but the talks are expected to take place soon. The US request to Islamabad to hold negotiations between Washington and Taliban on its soil is, indeed, a great diplomatic achievement for Islamabad as generally it has been alleged continuously by Afghan government and even Washington that Pakistan does not want to end the insurgency in Afghanistan. This is also an achievement of the PM Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government as the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have been dubbing Imran Khan as a Taliban apologist and sympathizer. However, both these parties during their respective rules were unable to adopt proactive diplomacy to end the conflict in Afghanistan, whose impact on Pakistan have been disastrous.
There are different aspects to the future Washington-Taliban talks in Pakistan. Apart from the agreement to hold talks in Pakistan which catapulted a positive image of Pakistan, there is a great possibility of a meaningful way forward in putting an end to the conflict in Afghanistan. The foremost reason is that given the traditional Afghan intransigence on every issue and particularly of the Afghan Taliban to come to the negotiation table, Pakistan may finally prevail upon the latter to come to an agreement. Because when the talks would be held in Pakistan, Islamabad could exercise more leverage upon the Taliban than if they are held elsewhere. Pakistan has been consistently telling the world that it has had influence over the Taliban but it cannot force the group to give up arms and agree to conditions set by Washington or the Afghan government. Secondly, as the talks would be held just before the next presidential elections in Afghanistan, the Taliban have every opportunity to talk and appropriate for themselves a share in state power as well as the future political and state structure in the country. Hopefully, Pakistan could also play its role in this regard by making the Taliban understand the importance of timings of talks which even could secure a lion’s share for the Taliban in any future dispensation by becoming part of the extant system and nominating its own candidate for the office of president. If the Taliban do so they would have a realistic chance of politically even winning the office of president as Afghans may rally around “reformed” Taliban to see their country out of crisis and conflict. Sensing the situation former Afghan warlord, Gulbadin Hikmatyar, who heads Hezb-e-Islami party has also announced his candidature for the next presidential elections. Because he knows that to remain relevant he and his party have to go to the people to solicit their support. Taliban should learn from Hikmatyar, who for a long time led the most ferocious armed militia.
Coming back to the significance of the changed US strategy regarding Afghanistan, this is realistic. Although this is not the first time that Washington has declared Taliban worth talking to, but President Trump has tried to meaningfully take the process of negotiations forward. Here one could recall the words of late Richard Holbrooke, former US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, when he once said that a “reformed Taliban” were acceptable in the Afghan government. Today, the words and forecasting of Holbrooke are turning out to be true that in the final political solution to Afghanistan the involvement of Afghan Taliban in the government would be acceptable to his government. I would like here to quote his exact words: “Let me be clear on one thing, everybody understands that this war will not end in a clear-cut military victory. …….some form of political settlements are necessary…… you can’t have a settlement with al Qaeda, you can’t talk to them, you can’t negotiate with them, it’s out of the question. But it is possible to talk to the Taliban leaders.”
Obviously, in asymmetrical warfare which Taliban have been waging in Afghanistan, there cannot be clear winners or losers. This does not mean that the Taliban are the future or fate of Afghanistan, but the point is that if the movement cannot be defeated in the battlefield than it should be got rid of in the political arena. In the present circumstances this could be the shrewdest policy. As far as the Afghan Taliban, their agenda and tactics are concerned, they could be neutralized through politics. The fact of the matter is that the modus operandi and modus vivendi of Afghan Taliban are not such that fulfil the needs of a polity.
Now, when the Americans on their part have extended an olive branch it remains to be seen how Afghan Taliban respond to it. Obviously, they would enter any negotiations from the position of strength which they have already achieved. However, at this point they must also understand that any further use of violence could be counterproductive.