Leap year charm

February 27, 2020


The writer is a PhD candidate at Yale.
The writer is a PhD candidate at Yale.

IN just a few days, one of two things may happen. On Feb 29, the US may sign a historic peace deal with the Afghan Taliban, or maintain there has been no significant reduction in violence in which case all bets are off. If the Taliban hold up their end of the bargain, the deal will pave the way for intra-Afghan negotiations and provide a justificatory umbrella for the US to withdraw a quarter of its roughly 12,000 troops this summer.

But like most exit-agreements, the devil is in the detail, or in this case, the lack of it. For Pakistanis who have lived and died in the perennial shadow of a mismanaged war effort next door, there are still a host of unknowns to contend with. Most Pakistanis are either too pragmatic, or too disillusioned by years of operational shortcomings on the Afghan battlefield, to expect a sincere apology for being scapegoated, first for not doing enough to exterminate the Taliban/Haqqani leadership, and then, not doing enough to engage them.

Yet between Sirajuddin Haqqani’s public sanitisation by The New York Times, America’s attention deficit and Kabul’s capacity deficit, it is incontestable that negotiations would not have reached this evolved stage without Pakistan’s cooperation and diplomatic efforts to curate some semblance of regional stability.

If a peace deal is signed this week, what comes next? No amount of spin can gloss over the fact that the Americans will, for all practical purposes, be signing instruments of surrender on Feb 29. For the Taliban in the room, many of whom who have staked their legacies on getting the US to exit, a US-Taliban truce will be a resounding victory. Buoyed by having defeated not one but two superpowers, the Taliban will approach the second phase of negotiations from a position of conviction.

If a peace deal is signed this week, what comes next?

Maintaining the peace is going to be doubly difficult without an agreed upon definition of ‘violence’ and a broader Chinese, American, Russian, Iranian and Pakistani convergence on regional endgoals. Monitoring compliance without neutral observers in an environment as complex as Afghanistan will be difficult; the ground is littered with spoilers, including those outside the country who would rather not see the Taliban mainstreamed. India, which has seen its influence in the Afghan endgame diminish, stands to benefit from continued low-intensity conflict, and wants to delay the political mainstreaming of the Taliban. Controlled chaos in Afghanistan undermines stability in Pakistan and creates the case for stronger Indo-Afghan strategic ties.

In its rush to reach a deal in light of a tough election calendar ahead, Republicans in the US could fudge long-term strategic intent, giving rise to several complications. For instance, it cannot both be a party to the conflict and a guarantor should things unravel. America’s insistence that it reserves the right to help defend Afghan forces in the interim is tricky; should Afghan forces come under fire, the US stands to lose credibility if it does nothing, and its goodwill with the Taliban should it intervene. And if counterterrorism indeed remains America’s top missive in the region, whether it can achieve its objectives without troops or resorting to gunboat diplomacy is unclear.

Equally unclear is the question of demobilisation and reintegration of Taliban fighters into the Afghan security forces. Mid-level commanders will expect patronage in the division of power, and likely the entire security apparatus will need to be reconstituted. Forging an ethnically inclusive institution will be necessary if it is to be deployed across the country.

Finally, the US still thinks Islamabad has incentives to “retain Taliban infrastructure” on its side of the border. Frankly, this is a cognitive schema that for now means the US won’t fully afford Pakistan the trust it deserves as a regional partner and well-intentioned stabiliser. This is unhelpful given the political crisis unfolding in Kabul in the wake of a contested election.

Today, there seems to be little appetite in the US to smooth over Kabul’s political cracks. Should intra-Afghan talks go ahead, there is no guarantee that President Ghani will concede a political exit; that non-Pakhtun factions will accept any dilution of their influence; that the political and social rights of women will indeed be upheld; and that Afghans themselves will agree to any constitutional changes, a Taliban demand that the US, in its rush to exit, has legitimised.

Negotiations among all Afghan factions are supposed to begin within 10 days of the plan being signed. But the real challenge going forward lies in mapping a viable peace that won’t be buffeted by exogenous shocks. Keeping that complex process on track will require the US to continue to invest, and for the next phase of negotiations, should they materialise, to not collapse under the collective weight of unrealistic expectations.

The writer is a PhD candidate at Yale.

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2020