Future of Afghan peace talks

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Muhammad Usman

PRESIDENT Trump scuttled peace talks between US and Afghan Taliban, nearly at concluding stage by tweeting that they are dead while unconvincingly blaming Afghan Taliban for an attack in which a US soldier was also among 12 other causalities. He also cancelled secret meeting with them at Camp David in the same sweep to amplify his dismay and opprobrium for wonton act. Though there existed more optimism about prospects of instant talks but for more of tactical reasons than strategic considerations. These reasons included Trump’s election pledge to end Afghan war being a wasteful expense and a conflict without clear victory coupled with his propensity to do what others could not do; showmanship, a quest for face saving by US in face of its widely presumed defeat in Afghanistan and display of amenability by Afghan Taliban to accept some US military presence in Afghanistan as a counterterrorism force and also a sense of accommodation showed by them for intra-Afghan dialogue. On the basis of these, it was quite unsafe to make safe bets. Two years earlier, it was same Trump who sounded like an impatient warmonger while announcing US South Asia policy. He said, there would be no talks with Taliban until a major military effort is successful against them. In more harsh terms, he arrogantly thundered, no talk until we finish what we have to finish.
At that time, he very conveniently hid himself behind the desk at Oval as things looked different from there. Again now he could argue that he won’t fall for a bad deal or as some suggested, he could declare a political victory by reducing troops unilaterally without a deal. For Afghan Taliban, a peace deal may be a necessary evil to ultimately, end foreign occupation from Afghan soil. With a shower of cold water thrown by Trump, one is tempted to reevaluate objectives of US in Afghanistan/region beyond the reason cited for having ruptured the peace talks. Now it is a declared policy of US to counter China worldwide which intends to expand and bolster its world trade in extent and depth. With BRI, it has already showcased its intent. The CPEC is its main plank which would give China a short and easy access to ME and beyond. Given environments, Russia also stands to cash in its dividends which is again another objective of US to counter. A few days back, China has agreed with Iran to invest up to US$ 290 Billion in development of Iran’s oil, gas and petroleum sectors and another sum of US$ 120 Billion in its transport and manufacturing infrastructure. It is a huge substantive development with far reaching implications for the great game between US and China in the offing. Iran is avid and desperate because of increasing US pressure against it. It could meet almost full requirement of gas and oil of China happily through existing China – Turkmenistan gas pipeline while laying oil pipeline along with it. With this, Chinese reliance on oil from Gulf States could reduce drastically where US has overbearing influence and also controls sea lanes for its passage. Besides, Iran could also provide China an access to ME and beyond through its seaport Chabahar. With these developments, Chinese major thrust towards ME and beyond becomes two pronged; CPEC and Iran.
Afghanistan lies between the two from where these could be influenced. In order to interdict Chinese moves, an aspiring big power would like to have presence here or influence to achieve the end. The US is so aspiring power and would contest hard in more ways than one to restrict Chinese moves even it means more expenditure in substance and effort. It is its vital objective. Presently, it wants to do it with reduced strength in Afghanistan in peace which is highly improbable when assessed in whole context realistically. At present, Afghan Taliban controls more than 60% of Afghan territory and continues to add more to it. Contrarily, Afghan government stands on slippery ground for host of reasons particularly, if US withdraws and leaves them at their own to deal with Afghan Taliban even as part of a peace deal. In post deal scenario, Afghan Taliban are likely to emerge dominant power whose exclusive aim would remain to banish foreign occupation and fashion the country according to their ideology. Precisely this may be the reason that internal division exists within US administration over a peace deal with Afghan Taliban and withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Trump seems to be giving in despite his characteristic fascination with thought of leaving Afghanistan as a bad job. It may also be implausible to assume that US stay in Afghanistan has become absolutely untenable under Taliban and domestic pressure.
Though Afghan Taliban has shown eagerness for resumption of dialogue with US but their attitude may become harden when they see continued US haughtiness. Following cancellation of talks, more than one thousand Taliban fighters have been killed in last ten days as claimed by US Secretary of State, Pompeo. Such orgy of bloodshed may exhaust patience of Taliban soon. This would further preclude possibility of peace in Afghanistan. Besides, continuing to live with an uncertain Afghanistan, Pakistan may have to firm up its response to a possible new US demand, already in air. To take on Afghan issue, US’s strategy in war-torn country could depend on bases in Pakistan, said a presidential candidate, Joe Biden.
— The writer, a retired Lt Col, is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.