The expected endgame in Afghanistan is becoming apparent with both sides, the US and the Afghan Taliban, imposing certain conditions on each other. The US thinks that it cannot withdraw its forces from Afghanistan unless the Afghan Taliban agree to two conditions. First, the Afghan Taliban should also negotiate with the Kabul regime. Second, the Afghan Taliban should announce a ceasefire. On the other hand, the Afghan Taliban demand a complete withdrawal of the US (and foreign) forces from Afghanistan, and no negotiations with the Kabul regime because the Afghan Taliban refuse to recognize the Kabul government.
Therein lies the rub. The Kabul government is the product of elections held under the Afghan Constitution (which is both presidential and federal). If the Afghan Taliban do not recognize the Kabul government, it means that they do not recognize the legitimacy of elections and the Afghan Constitution. The legitimacy of any elections such as the 2014 Afghan elections can be impugned by levelling allegations of electoral rigging, but then it means that next time transparent elections should be held. It does not mean that no elections are required to be held. Similarly, it does not mean that the Afghan Constitution is an inoperable document doomed for roll up.
The Doha talks, initiated in 2013, were a major feat of US diplomacy to bring the Afghan Taliban to the table. At that time, former President Hamid Karzai devalued the Doha talks and he impatiently denigrated the US officials engaged in the talks. On the other hand, the US officials opined that the Afghan Taliban were representing a segment of Afghan society and hence negotiations with them was plausible to give peace a chance to prevail. To the solace of the US, Afghanistan’s new President Ashraf Ghani did not raise any objections to the Doha talks.
With the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad in September 2018, as US Special Envoy on Afghanistan, a breakthrough appeared. In October 2018, not only Pakistan released Mullah Baradar, but the US also set free five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Their release offered legitimacy to Khalilzad and value to the Doha talks. On other side, since December 2017, there was going on a parallel round of talks with the help of China mediating negotiations between Pakistan and Kabul. The objective was to iron out differences, if any, between Pakistan and the Kabul regime. The propinquity between Pakistan and China was cashed in on, and it was ensured that Pakistan had no objection to the Kabul regime’s legitimacy.
Now, the second phase of peace negotiations has started. This phase is more inclusive than the previous one. In this phase, the help of Saudi Arabia has been sought to convince the Afghan Taliban to accept the presence of the Kabul regime in negotiations. In response, the Afghan Taliban have withdrawn, in consistent with their policy of non-recognition of the Kabul regime. With that, the real test of endurance and perseverance of all the parties concerned starts.
Pakistan was instrumental in nudging the Afghan Taliban to the Doha talks. Pakistan has been asked again to bring the Taliban to negotiations with the Kabul regime at the talks, whether they take place in Riyadh or Doha.
The strategy to do this is simple. Put pressure on Pakistan, as US President Donald Trump did on 1 January, 2018, by reproving Pakistan publicly through his twitter handle. Trump called Pakistan a liar and deceitful. The strategy worked effectively, since Pakistan quickly responded publicly by showing its cards. That is, the US was not recognizing Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war on terror.
On 20 January, 2019, on the invitation of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham visited Pakistan and offered all the correct words Pakistan was desperate to hear. Pakistan was not playing any double game in Afghanistan; five-thousand Pakistani soldiers died fighting the war on terror; and Pakistan’s incumbent prime minister was correct in saying that negotiations with the Afghan Taliban was a better way out. Graham’s utterances made Pakistan feel elated and accredited.
Graham was also sharp enough to exploit Pakistan’s favourite words, the game changer, and offered a carrot of the possibility of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two countries (meant for the integration of economies) in return for Pakistan’s efforts to convince the Afghan Taliban to accommodate the Kabul regime at the negotiating table. Graham said, “With the Prime Minister Khan, we have a unique opportunity to change our relationship to go from transactional to strategic; the way to do that is to integrate our economies, the FTA.” Graham further said, “ the IMF loan will stabilize in the shorter term of Pakistan’s economy but if we could ever one day get to integrated FTA, integrated economies between Pakistan and the US, that’s a game changer for Pakistan.” In response, Pakistan feels obliged and rejuvenated.
There is another dimension of the endgame in Afghanistan. The US has indicated a partial (or phased) withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan, but under certain guarantees such as a residual force would be left for conducting counterterrorism operations in case any renegade sub-group of the Afghan Taliban erupted into a revolt or any neo-al-Qaeda takes refuge in Afghanistan. To forestall such eventualities, the Afghan Taliban have only verbal assurances to offer. More than that, the US has shown its concern regarding the vulnerability of the Kabul regime and it is not ready to leave it to the mercy or goodwill of the Afghan Taliban.
The major claim of victory of the Afghan Taliban lies in the US’ announcement of the withdrawal of its troops. To achieve this end, the Afghan Taliban are vociferously demanding a timeline for the withdrawal of troops. The Afghan Taliban also demand the release of prisoners from US custody, besides lifting the travel ban on the Taliban leaders.
It is apparent that giving a definite timeline is hard for the US because any terrorist incident in Afghanistan has the potential of halting peace and threatening the existence of the Kabul regime. The relevant point is that, in Afghanistan, the US’ allies including the European Union, Japan, Australia and India have invested millions of dollars in the reconstruction of the worn torn country. Any escalation of a conflict would have the potential to ruin the past efforts. Allies are not apparent on the scene, but it is understandable that the US cannot ignore their concerns.
The US sees the solution in an intra-Afghan dialogue. The dialogue is important for two reasons. First, the dialogue is important to preclude the repeat of the post-1991 civil war in Afghanistan. Second, the dialogue is important to secure the investment of time and money of the US and allies in Afghanistan. The US is interested in both. The US is interested in the first because any civil war would take Afghanistan back to the benighted era infested with Islamic fundamentalists. The US is interested in the second because the allies may not divert more resources to try another time to reconstruct Afghanistan.
In short, the endgame in Afghanistan has entered the second phase, which is defined by the Afghan Taliban’s acceptance of the Kabul regime on the negotiation table and then recognizing the regime’s legitimacy publicly. The third phase would be to recognize the Afghan Constitution.