Taliban at a crossroads

October 06, 2019

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The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

THE Afghan Taliban appear to be at a crossroads again. They are to decide on a future political strategy without losing too much of their militant strength. So far, the Taliban leadership had been anticipating that the peace process would result in victory for them. Indeed, they entered into talks with the US with a sense of victory, and proved themselves hard negotiators.

They were fully prepared to enter the streets of Kabul like a victorious ‘army’, but President Donald Trump shattered their dream at the eleventh hour by [calling off][2] his ‘secret’ meeting with a Taliban delegation at Camp David, which many believed would be the venue for a peace agreement. This was perhaps the Taliban leadership’s weakest moment. They had been so close to the finish line.

Many feared the peace process could fall apart. The Taliban reached out to all their channels of support, including in Moscow and Beijing, and most importantly in Islamabad; they were advised by all to return to the peace process. The advice worked and the presidential election in Afghanistan was not as bloody as before, indicating the militia was ready to scale down the level of violence if peace talks resumed.

Apparently, the Taliban have not yet worked out a post-peace deal strategy in terms of how they will transform their war machinery into a political asset. So far, they have been set on capitalising on foreign troops’ withdrawal and devising a power-sharing formula with other stakeholders in Afghanistan. They were confident that they would easily broker a deal and gain power, which would also allow them to bring their fighters from the rural areas into the cities. However, political processes have their own dynamics.

Apparently, the Taliban have not yet worked out a post-peace deal strategy.

The Taliban delegation led by Mullah Baradar, which visited Islamabad recently, held some important meetings, further indicating a softening of the Taliban stance. The delegation met Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, but the reported meeting with the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, was even more significant. A US official denied that these developments signalled the resumption of the peace process. It is apparent that the US itself wants to decide when talks would restart.

It is not certain whether they will resume from the point at which they fell apart or if both sides will renegotiate specific terms. The US can insist on a ceasefire and acknowledge the next administration in Kabul as a legitimate actor in the conflict. The Taliban will resist any change in the agreed draft. Can Pakistan urge them to renegotiate?

It could a deliberate attempt by Trump to bring the Taliban under pressure, and for now, the effort has proved useful. However, the US has limited options in Afghanistan. A unilateral US withdrawal will also intensify the conflict on multiple internal fronts and encourage external actors to have proxies. Though the status quo suits Kabul, this is not going to end the war. The only option left for the Afghan government is to pursue a negotiated settlement with stakeholders, including the Taliban.

The US, too, cannot continue to use delaying tactics to keep the Taliban under pressure. But it is Pakistan’s position that is extremely delicate because of what’s happening in India-held Kashmir and it seems willing to extend all-out support to the US in the Afghan peace process. In return, Pakistan wants its ties with the US to be normalised in order to consolidate its geo-economic and strategic support while confronting India. Immediate support is required to keep Kashmir in the global political conversation. If Trump continues to offer mediation, it will serve the purpose and build pressure on India.

An idea that is shared by some policy circles in Islamabad is that the zero-tolerance approach exhibited by Pakistan against all shades of militants has weakened the Indian argument of linking Pakistan with terrorism at international forums. India’s economic, political, and strategic profile is strong, and most nations want to do business with India, but Pakistan’s new strategy of abandoning its previous policy on Kashmir might frustrate it.

In retaliation, India could go for a limited military adventure against Pakistan to hurt the latter economically and politically. This perception could be based on fear, and Pakistan’s cooperation with the US on Afghanistan may prevent India from getting too brazen.

Pakistan has its compulsions, but China is also keenly monitoring the situation in Afghanistan. The unilateral withdrawal of US troops will be a nightmare scenario for China, which is why it fully supports the peace process between the US and the Taliban. China is not ready to take any leadership role in the resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan, while it also fears that if the peace process collapses, the spillover effect will add to Chinese problems in the adjoining Xinjiang province.

Instability in Afghanistan could destabilise the region, thus affecting the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. But Chinese experts are more worried about CPEC. Any regional instability will hurt the initiative and may force Pakistan to put its geo-strategic priorities before the emerging regional geo-economics.

China wants the US to accomplish its peace mission in Afghanistan. In any worst-case scenario, China would prefer to use the regional platform, preferably the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, to drive negotiations.

Prime Minister Imran Khan is visiting China soon. Apart from addressing CPEC-related issues, he will discuss peace in Afghanistan with the Chinese leadership. The prospects of a probable change of administration in Kabul and the new dispensation’s attitude towards the peace process may also come under discussion. It seems both will encourage the Afghan Taliban to go with the peace process in Afghanistan.

If the Taliban agree on even a temporary ceasefire, it would be an excellent achievement for all. But the Taliban will have to face another challenge: that of convincing their field commanders about the victory they claimed after the first stage of the peace process. The Taliban have not lost much yet, but the militia’s fate will depend on their future plans.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2019

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