I HAVE maintained for some time now that the peace effort in Afghanistan will produce a workable outcome.
My optimism flows from the fact that the US is serious about getting to one. For years, the US system was divided on the wisdom of a negotiated settlement. No more. President Donald Trump jolted his establishment into pursuing an end to the war in earnest by signalling his intent to pull out and proving his propensity to disregard his establishment’s preferences. The message for the US bureaucracy was clear: a deal that protected US interests in Afghanistan had to be concluded soonest, or the president could pull the rug from under their feet.
The US machinery remains in overdrive to make something happen through the ongoing talks. But I wonder now if we are overstating the keenness among other key actors in achieving the same. Indeed, the way the deck is laid out, we require irrational behaviour from brutally self-interested actors to get to a solid deal. At least as the theory of negotiations goes, this is not a good place to be in.
There is increasing chatter about Afghan President Ashraf Ghani playing spoiler. He is not interested in relinquishing power and has been coalescing political forces in Afghanistan to raise the costs for the US and others to isolate him. He has constantly signalled that any deal his government hasn’t directly negotiated can’t be accepted.
Do the Taliban think that Trump will tweet his way to an abrupt pullout?
Troubling, but rational. He is not doing well politically and, by all accounts, will likely lose a fair election unless there is some major development in his favour. The only one conceivable is a peace deal that Ghani can truly own. Otherwise, even a settlement that manages to silence the guns in Afghanistan but doesn’t give him complete ownership may not benefit him. In fact, a workable power-sharing arrangement involving the Afghan Taliban could arguably jeopardise his political future.
Pakistan’s calculus isn’t devoid of perverse incentives either. Even as the US and Pakistan seem to be collaborating closely on the peace process, I pick up sceptical voices reminding decision-makers that Pakistan’s objective in partnering with the US on Afghanistan isn’t only peace on its western border. It is also to revive the presently broken US-Pakistan bilateral ties.
There hasn’t been any progress on this count. The US has been clear that ties can only improve once Pakistan is deemed to have delivered adequately in Afghanistan. The sceptics, however, have a different view: with Pakistan’s utility in Afghanistan reduced in a post-settlement Afghanistan, the US will be even less willing to engage Pakistan positively.
While those calling the shots are still convinced that peace in Afghanistan is important enough in and of itself, it is easy to see how one can extend the sceptics’ logic and argue that Pakistan should condition its support in Afghanistan on tangible concessions from the US on bilateral ties. Absent an appreciable thaw on bilateral issues, this view will keep gaining ground.
Next, Iran. Not much to unpack here beyond stating the obvious. Iran’s global isolation has never aligned with the benefits of a positive Iranian role in Afghanistan (from the US perspective). With the formal designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist entity, the die is cast. Iran’s resolve to raise US costs in Afghanistan will grow further.
Equally little needs to be said about India’s dislike for the shape of the current peace bid in Afghanistan. Any viable peace deal will legitimise the Taliban’s role in Afghanistan. To add to India’s worries, if the sun begins to set on US troop presence as part of the deal, India would lose the hard security umbrella that enabled it to successfully expand its development footprint in Afghanistan post-9/11. It makes little sense for India to support either.
Finally, the Taliban. For the most part, their desperation for political legitimacy and the keen recognition of the impossibility of a military victory makes them a genuinely pro-peace deal player. And yet, one is hard-pressed to point to any meaningful concessions from their side since the Doha talks began.
Among the various theories explaining the Taliban’s intransigence, the one that worries me most is that they have a lingering sense the US president will sooner or later tweet his way to an abrupt pullout. On the other hand, no matter what deal they strike, they must go through a complicated process of convincing their fighters that they haven’t sold out to the US. If so, would they prefer playing the delaying game rather than sincerely negotiating a compromise deal? Is this what is happening in Doha?
If the world is to see a viable negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, these perverse incentives need to be addressed immediately. Else, we may fall short, with detrimental consequences for Afghanistan, its neighbours, and US national security.
The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.
Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2019