Afghanistan: What lies ahead?

Updated March 16, 2020

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The writer is a former foreign secretary, and currently head of IoBM’s Global and Regional Studies Centre.
The writer is a former foreign secretary, and currently head of IoBM’s Global and Regional Studies Centre.

AS if the continuing political turmoil, fraught security situation and escalating sectarian attacks were not enough Afghanistan’s people have to now contend with an influx of potential COVID-19 carriers from Iran and possibly, according to some alarmists, from Pakistan. Confusion worse confounded should be the only thing one can see in Afghanistan.

There is, however, another way of looking at the Afghan picture. President Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration was attended by all representatives of the international community. This was an acknowledgement by the latter, as well as several Afghan leaders, that he was the de jure president recognised as such by the international community since the representatives attended his inauguration and ignored Abdullah Abdullah’s. This recognition was implicit in the UN Security Council’s endorsement of the US agreement with the Afghan Taliban.

The Taliban believe with good reason that the Americans have committed to securing the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan soldiers held by the Taliban before any intra-Afghan negotiations commence. They have termed as unsatisfactory the phased release that Ghani has proposed viz 1,500 before the talks commence and the remaining 3,500 to be released in batches of 500 every two weeks after the start of direct talks between the Taliban and a negotiating team appointed by the Afghan government, and the further condition that prisoners released provide a written pledge not to return to fighting.

The key is that even while calling this unsatisfactory they had not, at the time of writing, rejected it outright. There is a feeling that envoy Zalmay Khalilzad pushed Ghani to accept this as the maximum he could offer in light of the commitment the US made to the Taliban and then pushed the latter to protest if they wanted but not to reject it outright as the agreement could otherwise collapse.

Despite an improved scenario, will an intra-Afghan dialogue commence with a ceasefire and be concluded within 100 days?

Why would the Taliban accept this? It is again a conjecture that they want the full withdrawal of foreign forces and also the financial assistance that enables Afghan armed forces to remain available for a protracted period. There are two streams of financing for sustaining the Afghan forces. The first consists of the ANA (Afghan National Army) Trust Fund along with the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan and the Afghan government’s commitment to provide $500 million each year.

The most important is the United States Afghanistan Security Forces Fund which is governed by a US-Afghan agreement and pays for equipping and running Afghanistan’s security forces. The ASFF was about $4.9 billion annually, reduced by a small sum as result of the detection of corruption in its use and also by a more recent Ghani proposal to decrease the total required for the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces by about $1bn from the current $6.5bn. This was to be the amount made available every year by the US and its allies up to 2024.

With the Trump administration the Taliban know that maintaining this level of funding till 2024 is not likely particularly when there are no foreign troops present. But they want it to continue for as long as possible. Making this sort of concession on the timing and pace of prisoner release is not too high a price to pay.

Even while painting this relatively optimistic picture, it is difficult to accept Khalilzad’s assertion that the intra-Afghan dialogue could commence with a ceasefire and be concluded within 100 days. First, as Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert working in a think tank but who previously served in Afghanistan with the UN and US government, has said, it is going to be difficult to arrange meetings in Doha or Oslo or elsewhere while COVID-19 restrictions on assemblage are in place. He does not say so but one knows from past experience that that this cannot be overcome by remote online deliberations; in such negotiations much of what gets done is in informal, even furtive, contacts in corridors rather than in a formal setting.

In the meantime, what does Dr Abdullah and the others he represents do? Khalilzad says, “We do not have any problem with Dr Abdullah’s ideas and concerns, we are aware of the problems in the election. What we want to say is that there is a need for an understanding in this sensitive situation, because we want a sovereign, united and self-sufficient Afghanistan.” It is difficult to believe that Dr Abdullah and his cohorts will not want to strike out on their own, thus recreating the situation of 1996 when the Taliban controlled much of Afghanistan but the Tajiks and Uzbeks representing the internationally recognised government brought the Northern Alliance into being.

Is there a chance the Taliban could be persuaded to offer enough palliatives to the Tajiks and Uzbeks to prevent this? It seems difficult. The Taliban would want to avenge Taliban deaths that Rashid Dostum caused in Mazar-i-Sharif. They would perhaps want a reckoning for Taliban deaths laid at Ahmad Shah Massoud’s door in Panjshir valley and the role Tajik forces played in the US bombing that laid waste to Taliban forces and then gave the Tajiks control over Kabul allowing them to enrich themselves and add to the number of displaced Pakhtuns.

Khalilzad in his interview with TOLO news praised Pakistan, saying that “they encouraged the Taliban to sit at the negotiation table with the Afghan government” and that “they helped the Taliban to come from there [Pakistan] and pushed them in a meeting that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and we were in; they emphasised this and promised to cooperate in preparing the Taliban to sit at the negotiation table with the Afghan government”. Does this suggest Pakistan will have influence enough to get the Taliban to take a more conciliatory attitude towards Abdullah and his group? A tough call, but not entirely impossible.

The writer is a former foreign secretary, and currently head of IoBM’s Global and Regional Studies Centre.

Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2020