Uncertain Afghan endgame  

March 23, 2020

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The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

THE global coronavirus crisis has understandably overshadowed the international endorsement earlier this month of the Doha agreement between the US and the Afghan Taliban. 

On March 10 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution welcoming the US-Taliban agreement as a significant step “towards ending the war and opening the door to intra-Afghan negotiations”. This marked an important development as it conferred international legitimacy on the agreement signed in Qatar on Feb 29. But other developments have been far more consequential for the peace process, already at a standstill following a series of setbacks.

The inability to start intra-Afghan talks slated for March 10, deadlock over the prisoners’ release issue and the rival inauguration ceremonies of the Afghan president on March 9 — all underline how fraught the post-Doha situation has turned out to be. This raises serious questions about the future of the peace process as envisaged by the Doha accord.

While considering the ramifications of these developments it is important to keep in view the limits of the Doha agreement. This is indicated by its purposively vague nature in some respects and the obvious fact that it excluded the Afghan government with whom Washington signed a separate declaration.

The crux of the Doha agreement is Washington’s commitment to a total but phased withdrawal in return for the Taliban’s commitment to prevent Afghanistan’s soil from being used by terrorists and agreeing to intra-Afghan talks. The rest consists of aspirational goals and timelines, with the Afghan parties left with the responsibility to negotiate a ceasefire and a political settlement to end the war.

Delay in starting intra-Afghan talks increases the risk of the Doha peace plan being derailed.

The agreement calls for intra-Afghan talks to begin on March 10 and assumes their progress but does not indicate when they are to conclude. It also does not specify when the new Islamic government is to be formed — within the 14-month period committed for the drawdown of US forces or after?

As many analysts have pointed out, for President Donald Trump the agreement to bring troops home ahead of the American presidential election (less than eight months away) is driven by domestic political calculations rather than any strategic thinking. It enables him to deliver on his pledge to disengage America from an “endless war”.

This implies that his determination to pull out of Afghanistan appears to have priority over whether the negotiating process is able to yield enduring peace. From the Doha agreement and Trump’s statements it seems that the US may even be prepared to contemplate leaving Afghanistan without any meaningful long-term commitment. At the declaratory level, Washington will continue to assert that the drawdown is conditions-based until full implementation of the agreement, but President Trump is hardly likely to change his long-held view that Afghanistan is a quagmire from which an exit, not staying on, is the best course. “Countries,” he said after the Doha deal, “have to take care of themselves. You can only hold someone’s hand for so long.”

Disagreement over the prisoners’ release, which the Taliban insist is a prerequisite for commencement of an intra-Afghan dialogue, has become the immediate obstacle in the peace process. But a bigger challenge is the political crisis sparked by the clash between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah over the disputed presidential election.

If not expeditiously addressed, the tussle can snowball into a bigger crisis. This would further delay intra-Afghan talks at a time when the US withdrawal is already under way while the Taliban have resumed operations against government forces and vice versa.

Several questions are raised by these developments. Will the start of the US drawdown mount enough pressure on Ghani and Abdullah to reconcile their differences and agree on a common negotiating team for intra-Afghan talks?

How engaged will the US be at this time to press the Afghan parties to compromise, preoccupied as it is, like other countries, with tackling the coronavirus emergency? Will a prolonged hiatus in peace talks unravel efforts to end the war especially if there is a renewal of significant violence?

For now, Ghani seems intent on using the prisoners issue as leverage to strengthen his hand with Washington and press Abdullah to back down and accept him as the legitimate president. This brinkmanship, against the backdrop of parallel governments and regional leaders lining up with one or other side, risks further destabilising the situation and imperilling the peace process.

Meanwhile, the Taliban, while renewing attacks on government forces, have sought to demonstrate that they are sticking to their deal with the Americans. On March 14, the Taliban reiterated their commitment to eliminate the Islamic State (Daesh), which was promptly welcomed by US special representative, Zalmay Khalilzad as a “positive step”.

Nevertheless, the longer the delay in starting intra-Afghan negotiations the greater the risk of the peace plan mapped out at Doha being derailed and the country descending into political chaos.

While Covid-19 will impose obvious limits on diplomatic efforts, Khalilzad has used it to press the urgency of resolving the prisoners dispute.

Yet despite his prolonged stay in Kabul, he has been unable so far, to overcome the impasse on both the prisoners issue and parallel governments. Nato, meanwhile, has expressed concern at the political turmoil.

For Pakistan it is imperative to accurately anticipate the likely scenarios that may evolve and be ready with a whole-of-government approach to respond to them. This exercise should neither be guided by wishful nor short-term thinking.

The best-case scenario of course is that the principal parties adhere to the agreement, work to reduce violence and defeat the machinations of domestic and regional spoilers even if the timelines change and stated positions are modified in order to make the arrangement work.

However, the risk of other scenarios materialising may be higher, in which the road map laid out at Doha is upended by the collapse of intra-Afghan negotiations or the failure of talks to resolve core issues even if the dialogue can somehow get going. This could lead to a resurgence of violence which may in turn compel a reluctant US to slow down its withdrawal with unpredictable consequences.

All this serves as a telling reminder that winning the peace is always much harder than waging war.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2020