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An Afghan trifecta

For now, Pakistan’s support is the source of optimism about US engagement with the Taliban

At last week’s talks with the Taliban in Doha, the US reportedly put the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan on the table. America may pull out over an 18-month period after an agreement is signed with the Taliban. In return, the Taliban has apparently assured that Afghanistan will not be used for attacks against America and its allies.

Delhi is certainly not alone in being both sceptical about the prospects for these talks and concerned about their success. For, there are not many who vouch for the Taliban’s trustworthiness. And American military presence since 2002 has allowed the construction of a modernising Afghanistan and let India deepen its engagement.

This is not a moment, however, for Delhi to stand by and criticise or call for ideal solutions. It is about preparing for significant change in Afghanistan — for good or bad.

After the Doha talks, the US special representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, tweeted about the “significant progress on vital issues”. Khalilzad’s optimism was reciprocated by the Taliban officials. Both sides also underlined that there were a number of unresolved issues. Many of these are deal-breakers.

These include the questions of a ceasefire and direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul to settle the post-conflict political arrangements. The Taliban has been negative on both the issues. Beyond these two, there are other more complex issues like the nature of the post-conflict arrangements in Kabul, potential changes to the Afghan Constitution and, above all, the mechanics for peaceful transition to a new political order.

Khalilzad insisted that American agreement to withdraw from Afghanistan is contingent on agreement on all issues. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire”, he tweeted.

Khalilzad and the Taliban team are scheduled to sit down at the end of February for a third round of talks. In what is seen as a signal of seriousness, the Taliban last week appointed Mullah Baradar Akhund to lead the talks with the US. As one of the top leaders of the Taliban, he is expected to negotiate with some authority.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the Doha talks as “encouraging” and summed up the current US objectives in Afghanistan — to bring peace, prevent the nation from re-emerging as a haven for terrorists and bring the American boys back home after 17 long years in Afghanistan. Pompeo added that the US wants to “strengthen Afghan sovereignty, independence and prosperity”.

These are not easy objectives to reconcile. An American emphasis on bringing the troops home, for example, might make peace and stability in Afghanistan more elusive. Khalilzad is probably the best negotiator the US could have found to address the difficult diplomatic challenge in Afghanistan.

Few in Washington know Afghanistan as well as he does. A first generation Afghan-American, Khalilzad served as the US ambassador to Kabul during 2003-05, soon after the US forces ousted the Taliban from power at the end of 2002.

Khalilzad has his task cut out. On his return to Afghanistan, a decade and a half later, Khalilzad finds three big problems facing the US. The first is that Donald Trump’s patience with America’s longest war is wearing thin. He is not alone, for the political weariness with America’s longest war has grown steadily. Trump has apparently asked for plans to cut a significant number of troops from the current deployment of about 14,000. But no decision has been formally made or announced. For now, at least, it is contingent on what the Taliban and Pakistan do.

Second, the Taliban is playing hard ball. Just hours before it sat down with Khalilzad and his team in Doha, its insurgents launched a deadly attack in Wardak province that killed more than a hundred Afghan security forces. The Taliban says it will fight Kabul and talk to Washington at the same time.

The Taliban’s diplomatic assertiveness is rooted in Afghanistan’s changed ground reality. When Khalilzad was the American ambassador in Afghanistan, the Taliban was licking its wounds. Soon after, it regrouped and re-emerged as a force to reckon with in Afghanistan — rhanks to support from the deep state in Pakistan.

According to the latest US government reports, the Taliban controls more than 12 per cent of the districts in Afghanistan and contests the government in another 33 per cent. This is probably an under-estimation. The Taliban now makes frequent and intense attacks at will across Afghanistan.

Khalilzad’s third challenge is Pakistan. Geography makes Pakistan critical for either war or peace in Afghanistan. Trump’s predecessors seemed willing to acquiesce in Pakistan’s Afghan double game — hunting with America and running with the Taliban. Trump, however, has taken a different tack and challenged Pakistan’s support for terror. He has cut off US military assistance and threatened to put Pakistan under international financial sanctions.

We don’t know if Trump’s pressure is working or Pakistan has become really interested in Afghan peace. But there is no denying that Pakistan’s support is the source of the current optimism about the engagement with the Taliban.

While the terms of engagement between the US and the Taliban are visible to the public, we don’t know anything about the price that Rawalpindi has set for its cooperation and what the US is willing to offer. Hopefully, the US will keep its partners informed.

If the US effectively uses its considerable residual leverage in Afghanistan, Pakistan does not try and turn Afghanistan into a weak protectorate, and the Taliban does not overreach inside Afghanistan, there is reason for optimism. But if you are a sceptic, you might argue that an Afghan trifecta is near impossible.

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