The US-Taliban talks for ending war in Afghanistan resumed after a three month hiatus in Doha recently. The talks restarted after a surprise announcement by President Donald Trump during his Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan in which he again called for a ceasefire with the Taliban. The two sides have continued to maintain informal contacts during the period talks remained suspended.
When the talks were abruptly called off in September by Trump, the two sides were close to a deal on the withdrawal of US troops in return for the Taliban assurances that Afghan territory will not be used for militancy against the US and its allies. Accepting such an assurance for a peace deal effectively means that the Americans have conceded Afghanistan to the Taliban.
Notwithstanding the pending deal, General Austin Miller, the US Commander in Kabul, has revealed that the US has reduced its troops by 2,000 during the last 12 months.
Senior former American diplomats have in the meantime, warned that “major withdrawal of US forces should follow, not come in advance of real peace agreement”. Anarchy in Afghanistan following a premature American exit, they believe, “could prove catastrophic for the US national security …”
US seems to be in a hurry in pushing a deal with the Taliban, the Afghan problems multiply. The World Bank has warned that Afghanistan will require billions of dollars of international assistance over many years to deliver basic services to sustain possible peace. Inefficient funnelling of billions in American money has shaped the Afghan economy entirely dependent upon foreign money
While Trump’s call for a ceasefire is a welcome news for Kabul, the Taliban dismiss any suggestion of a ceasefire before a deal with the US. Weakened by the US decision to talk separately with the Taliban, Kabul wants a sequence of ceasefire, direct talks with the Taliban, security guarantees and then US troops withdrawal.
Taliban refuse to talk to an “illegitimate puppet regime”. Taliban know their strength lies in maintaining their offensive capability and they will not give up on that.
In the meantime, violence continues unabated — 57 pro-government forces and 27 civilians were killed between November 29 and December 5. This increasing violence coupled with Trump’s desperate attempts to pull out of Afghanistan, to bolster his electoral prospects, makes Kabul regime extremely nervous.
Pakistan, the country most affected by the unending war in Afghanistan, facilitated the peace talks in Doha and also pushed behind-the-scene contacts to restart the Taliban — US talks. In October, Pakistan received a Taliban delegation in Islamabad. It arranged a meeting between the Taliban and the US Special envoy visiting Islamabad at the same time. They are said to have discussed reduction of violence in Afghanistan and resumption of talks.
As the US seems to be in a hurry in pushing a deal with the Taliban, the Afghan problems multiply. The World Bank has warned that Afghanistan will require billions of dollars of international assistance over many years to deliver basic services to sustain possible peace. Inefficient funnelling of billions in American money has shaped the Afghan economy entirely dependent upon foreign money.
The country needs at least $11 billion in public expenditure annually and it raises a measly $2.5 billion, leaving 75 per cent of expenditure to be met through international grants and aid, almost entirely coming from the United States. With economy growing slower than the population, more than half of Afghans are considered living below the poverty line.
The Afghan government faces another immediate test. More than two months after the presidential elections, the results have yet to be announced. Opposition candidates have threatened to reject any figures announced by the elections body that is accused of favouring the incumbent Ashraf Gani.
Given the history of Afghan elections, this dispute, too, threatens to grow into a crisis in a country with deep divisions among different ethnicities.
The Americans, too, do not seem to have appetite to involve themselves in the government formation this time after burning their fingers in setting up a unity government last time, between Ashraf Gani and his principal rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah. The so-called unity government has remained acrimoniously divided.
Western style democratic practices are not a part of Afghan psyche and the US mistakenly continues to force it on people unprepared for the system. The candidates’ behaviour, too, hasn’t changed. They are less focused on campaigning and more on influencing the electoral process to obtain a slice of political power, according to the New York Times.
The result is the growth of new elites, owing existence to the US patronage, more corruption thus fomenting further divisions in the society.
With nearly all his foreign policy initiatives stalled, facing impeachment and re-election at home, Trump is desperate to bring American soldiers’ home. The more likely outcome if the deal is signed between the Taliban and the US is that America will abandon the government in Kabul to obtain a face-saving exit from Afghanistan.
The Taliban could let that happen. But that would lead to another phase of internecine troubles in Afghanistan, till one man emerges to stamp his authority over a disparate country.
— Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore 2009 — 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service 1973 — 2008 and served as Pakistan’s Consul General to Dubai during the mid 1990s.