In the last few months, a new window opened in the seventeen years old war in Afghanistan. There was breakthrough with first serious efforts of direct negotiations between United States (U.S.) and main militant group Taliban. It was President Donald Trump’s announcement of withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan that got the ball rolling. He made this decision without consulting any other government agency. Pentagon, intelligence community and State Department view rapid withdrawal as a recipe for disaster. Trump appointed former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and an Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad nick named Zal to spearhead this effort. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar worked as intermediaries and a bridge between Taliban, Pakistan and Americans.
Negotiations between Taliban and Unites States is only one dimension of a complex conflict. Taliban’s strategy is simple in its execution. It used its committed cadre of fighters and support structure in Pakistan to escalate violence to a level to achieve two goals. First to sow enough fear and uncertainty among Afghans that will undermine the efficiency and to some extent legitimacy of the government. Another objective is to convince fellow Afghans that without giving them a share in power and economic pie, Afghans will never see peace. Initially, behind the scene, questions were raised by Americans whether Taliban are a unified entity to work with. Taliban responded by announcing a three days ceasefire during Eid festival. There were no attacks all over the country proving their point that they have a firm command and control system and all fighters follow the leadership. When United States announced troop withdrawal plan, Taliban thought that by directly negotiating they will get the credit and fulfill one of their objectives of forcing foreign troop withdrawal. This will help them to carve out a much larger share in power after American withdrawal. Another factor was intense pressure on Taliban from Pakistan and Arab countries. Agreeing to direct negotiations with Americans, Taliban placated both parties and if no agreement is reached, they can claim that they entered in negotiations with good faith and put the blame of failure at American doorstep. From U.S. point of view, there is a narrow window of about six months. Domestic troubles of President Trump will take a sharp turn with completion of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s work. In addition, presidential campaign will start in the fall of 2019 and these two factors will suck all the oxygen in White House. Like many other foreign policy issues, Afghanistan will also recede in the background.
Things are also moving very fast for Taliban. Transition of an armed group from war to a political process is a challenging period. Consensus among core leadership, sorting out friction between fighting commanders on the ground and political operatives of the movement and most importantly a convincing message to the foot soldiers about what is the meaning and concrete shape of victory. Compromise is a completely different animal than total victory. It is at this junction that armed groups split into factions. There is some friction among senior members of Taliban leadership on policy issues. One example will give a glimpse of these Byzantine intrigues. In December 2018, Taliban shadow governor of Helmand Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund who was a strong opponent of negotiations with U.S. was killed in a drone strike. Events moved very fast after his demise on the negotiations front that raises the question whether someone from inside tipped the Afghan or American intelligence. His control of a large share of Helmand’s opium crop and his rivalry with Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhund adds to the confusion surrounding his death. On the political front, some old hands like Tayyab Agha faded and Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai has emerged as public face of Taliban in negotiations. He is facing his own challenges from political operatives and military commanders of Taliban movement.
Taliban initially agreed to travel to Pakistan to meet Pakistani officials. However, when Afghan public opinion turned against them accusing Taliban being Pakistan’s proxies, Taliban declined to come to Islamabad citing travel problems. Signature on a piece of paper for American troop withdrawal is the easiest part. Real landmines on the road to peace are agreement on ceasefire, transition, involvement of Afghan government in the process, buy in from Afghan power brokers and role of neighboring countries especially Pakistan and Iran. Even if this Herculean task is achieved, the real elephant in the room is who is going to subsidize the Afghan state?
Taliban will sign on any document as they think that after the departure of American troops, with dominant military muscle they will dictate their terms on Afghans opposing them. Some even argue that there is no need to negotiate and risk internal division as Americans are going anyway whether there is an agreement or not. What happens after American withdrawal is anybody’s guess? Even if Taliban decide not to use violence, insistence on Shariat based constitution and restrictions on women and civil liberties now enjoyed by Afghans will bring them in conflict with many groups. With such deep ideological divisions, instinctive use of violence is the next logical step that will plunge the country into another cycle of fratricide.
Anyone trying to read tea leaves in the muddy waters of Afghanistan has been disappointed time and again. The issue is not limited to Taliban and United States but there are several regional and international actors who have a vote on this subject. More importantly Afghan individuals, groups and factions will drive events. Currently, Afghan power brokers are in a state of rapid re-alignment. Afghan government sees itself as a big loser as so far it has been excluded from the negotiations process. Zal periodically briefs high Afghan officials on the pace of negotiations but it is not enough to allay their fears. On the other hand, Russia also kept Afghan government out of the talks it sponsored in Moscow. President Ashraf Ghani is trying to shore up his position. On internal front, he has announced convening of a grand assembly of tribal leaders in March and bringing in his inner circle experienced street fighters who served as interior ministers and head of Afghan intelligence agency National Directorate of Security (NDS). The list includes Hanif Atmar, Amrullah Saleh and Asadulah Khalid. On external front, he is appealing to the Europeans for support. However, on both fronts, he is vulnerable. Tribal leaders will defect to who offers them more money and leave them alone in their tribal fiefdoms. Europe is facing its own serious problems of Brexit as well as rise of right-wing political parties. There is no desire to spend European treasure in the black hole of Afghanistan.
Political competition is rapidly evolving into a zero-sum game. One can now see evolution of factions that includes members of current government under President Ashraf Ghani, former President Hamid Karzai and his close confidants, members of old Northern Alliance and regional strongmen. This gives option of defection to every Afghan player and history of Afghanistan is full of these volte face. The most damaging effect of this exercise is erosion of nascent and already shaky national instruments of security. Army, police and intelligence agencies are now riddled with fear, suspicion and mistrust. Individual members of these organizations will drift towards sub-national identities for survival.
Any future national structure that will emerge after American withdrawal will be on very shaky grounds. The real wild card in this game is young generation of Afghans who grew up after 2001 especially in urban centers with access to information. Eighty four percent of twenty-seven million Afghans are under the age of forty. Fate of Afghanistan will be determined by this group and time will tell if they organize to a level where they can pull their own elders from the brink of another cycle of civil war or pick a gun and join their respective political, ethnic or sectarian group.
There is lot of euphoria generated by photo sessions of gatherings in Qatar and Moscow. However, one needs to be realistic and never lose sight of harsh and painful facts on the ground. If we rewind the clock, we will see that a similar assorted set of Afghans was gathered in Taif; Saudi Arabia and had to be put in a prison for a night to agree to the mundane issue of who would be their spokesperson. In another round, all were pushed inside the most holy building of their religion; Ka’aba where they swore that they will stop the bloodshed and signed on their most holy book Quran. When they came back to their homeland, they brought the destruction that surpassed the punishment inflicted by Soviet Union on Afghans. This is reality, rest is our own imagination.
U.S. is currently spending $42 billion a year in Afghanistan. Everyone including Taliban are benefiting from this largesse. Once this tap is closed and American restraints on local and regional players is removed then everybody and his cousin will rush in and I’ll leave it to the imagination what it means? Machiavelli gave us warning about such situations that “in a divided country, when any man thinks himself injured, he applies to the head of his faction, who is obliged to assist him in seeking vengeance if he is to keep up his own reputation and interests, instead of discouraging violence”.
Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and UAE on one and Qatar on the other side also had an impact on Afghan dialogue process. Initially, venue of talks was in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. When Saudi Arabia and later UAE pressured Taliban to also include Afghan government in the process, Taliban deftly used Arab division to its own advantage. They declined to attend meetings in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Qatar quickly filled the gap by arranging meetings in Doha pitching to the Americans that Doha already has Taliban office and not insisting to Taliban to include Afghan government.
United States found it more useful and productive to use Arabs to work on Pakistan rather than attempting old formula of direct incentives and arm twisting. Pakistan is in a very difficult economic situation and therefore more vulnerable diplomatically. An element of self-interest is also involved. They have realized the grave danger of proxy war and its negative fallout for Pakistan with a quick American withdrawal. Now Pakistan is doing everything for free for Americans as they see this exercise as self-interest. Saudi Arabia and UAE and to a lesser extent Qatar have picked up the tab.
Current civilian government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has ceded foreign policy as well national security to the army. This is what army brass has been advocating for decades telling the politicians to concentrate on economy and governance and leave the national security and foreign policy to the army. The prayers of generals have been answered. Afghan policy and negotiations with Americans are dictated by a general principle accepted by army brass, articulated by late General Muhammad Zia ul Haq and quoted in John Persico’s biography of CIA Director William Casey. In 1983, Zia told Casey that ‘being a friend of the United States was like living on the banks of a great river. The soil is wonderfully fertile, but every four or eight years the river changes course, and you may find yourself alone in a desert’.
If Afghanistan is faced with another round of violence, the winds of instability will invariably start to blow east of the Durand Line. This will have significant social, political and economic fallout for Pakistan. 2019 is different than 2001 and Pakistan has certain advantages as well as new vulnerabilities in 2019. Now, Pakistan army is in control of border area. Regular army and paramilitary force Frontier Scouts (FS) are manning border posts, control all major population centers as well as roads. Thanks to American financial support a decade ago, FS is equipped and trained and manning defensible positions. Army’s decision to fence the border seems now very prudent as it may provide some firewall. On the negative side, army was blindsided by deep anger among tribesmen. Sudden emergence of a grassroots organization Pushtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) gave voice to grievances of not only tribesmen but large number of young Pushtun students and professionals found a voice. Poor handling by army and some irresponsible statements from some PTM members widened the gulf and now a lot is needed to bridge the gap. In fact, Pushtun youth of both Pakistan and Afghanistan who advocate non-violence can be the bridge of peace between two countries. Expectations should be modest and a reasonably functioning central Afghan government that allows some economic activity and keeps violence below a certain threshold that it does not affect day to day activities then people should be satisfied with this outcome.
The most clear and present danger is covert wars staged from Afghanistan. Everyone is angry and blames others for their misfortunes forgetting their own role in the blood-soaked saga of the last four decades. If everyone succumbs to their basic instincts, then they will see covert operations as a cheap option to address their pressing security concerns. The possibilities for destruction are endless and can be done very cheaply. It takes years to build a school or a hospital and train staff with large human and economic investment. However, you can bring down the whole building in less than five minutes using explosive costing less than $100. A bullet costing few pennies can take the flame of life from a teacher or a doctor that took two decades of education.
U.S. using Saudi and Emirati connections in the border territory to support Baluch of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran to run covert operations in southern areas of Iran. Israelis will invariably join this party in view of recent close cooperation with Saudis and Emiratis in security and intelligence fields. Angry Afghans giving shelter to Pakistani Taliban as well as Baluch militants to pay back Pakistan in its own coin. Iranians using it as a staging ground to thwart Saudi encroachment in its backyard in Baluchistan. Russia attempting to create a cordon sanitaire in northern Afghanistan to keep the winds of chaos away from vulnerable Central Asian Republics as well as its soft underbelly in Chechnya and Dagestan. India preferring to fight the battle inside Afghanistan to prevent establishment of safe havens of Kashmiri militants and avoid the re-run of the bad movie of 1990s. China’s ill thought policy of mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims and attempts to completely erase their Muslim identity has opened a very fertile soil for trouble. Uighur orphans can find many step-fathers in the killing fields of Afghanistan that can keep China busy chasing shadows for decades.
If restraint is not shown then in this zero-sum game, everyone will suffer in the long run even of they achieve some temporary success. Former CIA director Richard Helms quoted in Bob Woodward’s The Secret Wars of CIA very correctly pointed that, “Covert action is like a damn good drug. It works, but if you take too much of it, it will kill you”. Everyone engaged in this exercise needs only to care about the welfare of their own people and not doing a favor to the other party. They will need wisdom of Solomon, patience of Job and mercy of Jesus to change the trajectory of history from violence to peaceful co-existence and need to reflect on Liddelhart’s definition of success, “Victory in the true sense implies that the state of peace, and of one’s people, is better after the war than before”.
‘It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.’ General Robert F. Lee
By Hamid Hussain