By Muhammad Hanif
January 16, 2019
President Trump has already ordered to withdraw 7000 troops from Afghanistan and to conduct full withdrawal to meet his election promise of reducing the US military commitments overseas. Trump wants to have a quick peace deal with the Taliban. To realize a peace deal on an urgent basis, while Trump had nominated Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as US envoy to Afghanistan, he also wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of Pakistan seeking Pakistan’s assistance in the talks.
In response, Prime Minister Imran Khan vowed that Pakistan would do whatever was possible to facilitate the talks between the US and the Taliban. Mr Trump has ordered the withdrawal of troops after realizing that the troop surge, ordered earlier, has not worked well and any further US military commitment in Afghanistan is also likely to bog down. Although the withdrawal orders are given, despite the US military authorities’ reservations, President Trump strongly believes that this is the right time to end Afghanistan commitment with dignity, rather than getting entangled into some worst case scenario later.
As President Trump wants an early agreement on Afghanistan, and politics is an art of achieving whatever is possible, Trump is doing a fine politics by asking the US negotiators to directly talk to the Taliban, against the previous US policy that Taliban should talk to the Afghan NUG. In this context, with the help of Pakistan, Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad has already held one round of the talks with the Taliban in the UAE in December 2018. And, Mr Zalmay is quite hopeful about the success of the talks as he has stated that a peace agreement should be possible by April 2019.
The Taliban leadership had welcomed Trump’s withdrawal order and they are now participating in the talks with the US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, being facilitated by Pakistan. In this regard, the Afghan NUG is now also keen to talk to the Taliban, as it has already announced the establishment of the High Advisory Board for Peace and the peace negotiating team of Government. At the same time, various political parties and groups in Afghanistan are trying to contact Taliban on their own as well.
But the Taliban is not yet ready to talk to the Afghan NUG negotiating team. They had refused to talk to the Afghan NUG delegation during the first round of talks held in the UAE, although the NUG delegation was there to participate in the talks. The Taliban considers the Afghan Government as a US puppet, and that the real power in Afghanistan lies with the US. Hence, they are talking to the US officials, although the US will ultimately try to convince the Taliban to accept Afghan NUG representation in the talks. The US and the Afghan NUG would also request Pakistan to ask the Taliban to accept the NUG representatives in the talks.
Moreover, the Taliban is refusing to talk to the Afghan NUG negotiating team as probably they think that they are talking to the US from the position of strength to prove themselves as a major broker of peace rather than the Afghan NUG. Hence, by refusing to talk to the NUG team, the Taliban want to undermine the status of the NUG in the eyes of the Afghan people, Afghan elite, warlords and internationally. Therefore, the Afghan NUG is in a fix and is trying to participate in the talks to prove its relevance in the Afghan politics.
However, it appears that the Taliban will agree to give a place to the Afghan NUG negotiating team in the talks only when it has finalized the draft peace agreement with the US negotiators, and at that stage the Afghan NUG negotiating team would be made to sit in the talks for signing the agreement for its smooth implementation. Pakistan has actively demonstrated its diplomatic outreach for making the negotiation process a success. It has facilitated first round of negotiations. In the aftermath, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister has carried out shuttle diplomatic tour of Afghanistan, Iran, China and Russia for taking into confidence about the progress of talks, since these countries are also in favour of holding talks with the Taliban.
However, because of its strategic mistake of opposing talks with the Taliban, India itself stands isolated in this region. In view of the above, Pakistan should consider President Trump’s firm resolve to end the US military commitment in Afghanistan as an opportunity to achieve peace in Afghanistan by facilitating the peace process. In this regard, Pakistan should make its full efforts to convince the Taliban to continue to attend the negotiations till an agreement is reached/signed, and at an appropriate stage they should also agree to the Afghan NUG delegation to sit in the talks, to have all Afghan stakeholders on-board.
Muhammad Hanif is an ex-Army Colonel and Senior Research Fellow, Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad.