No sign of Afghan end game in sight


Akbar Jan Marwat

IN a great irony of history, the Americans want the help of Afghan Taliban to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, which it attacked when the Taliban ruled it some eighteen years ago. The withdrawal or drawdown of the US troops from Afghanistan will end the American war but it will do little for bringing peace to either Afghanistan or Pakistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan will have to make their own efforts to bring peace to their respective countries. The Taliban were very buoyed by a series of talks with the US officials. Their success on the battlefield and progress in their talks with the Americans had convinced them that they would soon victoriously enter Kabul. The unpredictable American President shattered the Taliban hopes when he called off the secret talks with the Taliban at Camp David at the eleventh hour.
After this cancellation of talks by the US, which was probably to put more pressure on the Afghan Taliban, there were fears in some quarters that the talks may fall apart. The Afghan Taliban perhaps also became a little apprehensive and sought advice from their sympathizers i.e. Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad. The Taliban, it seemed, were advised not only to return to the talks but also to keep the level of their violence low. The Taliban apparently heeded the advice and as a result the recently held presidential elections were not as bloody as before. This was, it seems, a subtle hint from the militia that it was willing to scale down the level of its kinetic operations, if peace talks were to resume.
The Taliban, it seems have not fully thought out a post peace role for themselves, in which they would be required to convert their battlefield prowess into civilian power sharing. Till now they seem to be more preoccupied with the withdrawal of foreign troops. They seem to be confident, that after the withdrawal of the US troops, they would be the pre-dominant power in Afghanistan. The Taliban delegation led by Mullah Barader, which visited Pakistan recently, had meetings with the Pakistani Foreign Minister as well as the Prime Minister. More significant was their meeting with the US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. A US official however, denied that the Taliban’s meeting with the US Envoy signalled the resumption of the stalled peace talks. But in any event, the US-Taliban meeting did signal a softening of attitude towards peace talks by the two sides.
Not following through on the peace talks would be detrimental for both the US and the Taliban. Successful peace-talks will bring international recognition for Taliban and international aid for Afghan institutions, perhaps ruled by the Taliban one day. Similarly if the US withdraws its troops without a settlement with the Taliban, the conflict in Afghanistan can intensify on multiple fronts with the possibility of external actors getting involved through proxies. China would also be closely monitoring the Afghan-US talks. The unilateral pullout of US troops would be a nightmarish scenario for China also. Instability in Afghanistan may not only have spill-over effects in Xingjian province but may also adversely affect the Chinese Belt and Road initiative.
Although no end seems to be in sight of the Afghan end game, Pakistan, as pointed out in the first paragraph, must fend for itself and take steps to ensure stability in Afghanistan. Only then will the region and Pakistan enjoy the fruits of peace, when it returns to Afghanistan. We have certainly made many mistakes in Afghanistan. But I hope we will not further compound these mistakes by traditionally and unconditionally supporting the Taliban like before. A well thought out and balanced policy vis-à-vis the Taliban has to be followed by Pakistan, because the US and Afghanistan will be heavily dependent on Pakistan for reigning in the Taliban threat.
In case of the Taliban the greatest threat for Pakistan to manage would be to prevent the Taliban from again developing nexus with International and Pakistani Jihadists. This collaboration between Afghan Taliban and Jihadist elements can very adversely affect Pakistan’s struggle against its own militant organizations, especially with an aggressive India and ever-vigilant FATF breathing down its neck. Pakistan has to be very careful both in the event of the Taliban’s coming into power and staying in the opposition. Taliban in power can radicalize the Islamic segments of our society. On the other hand, a disempowered Taliban can again foment trouble in our tribal areas in the context of their unfinished war. Pakistan must sincerely work with any government that gets elected in Kabul. Pakistan must strengthen the hand of the elected government and persuade the Taliban into a power sharing arrangement. Afghanistan must also realize if it wants Pakistan to sincerely help it, it must too sincerely seek and retain friendly relation with Pakistan.
—The writer is a former Health Minister, based in Islamabad.