By Nayan Chanda
June 1, 2019
As the 2020 presidential election approaches, the challenge of ending America’s longest war has acquired new urgency. While the Taliban have stepped up their international diplomacy – with publicised events in Moscow to pressure the US to end its military involvement, US Afghan negotiators too would be embarking on fresh rounds of visits. To boost chances of a successful agreement improvement of relations with Pakistan may also be on the cards. A hurriedly concluded peace settlement and rapid withdrawal of American troops that the Taliban want could leave India as a bystander in a country where it has sunk a considerable amount of its resources and prestige. Pakistan, on the other hand, could cash in diplomatic rewards for its long sponsorship of the Taliban.
The current US-Taliban talks centre on four issues – withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, guarantees against terrorism, peace talks between Taliban and the Afghan government, and a lasting ceasefire. For the Taliban, the core issue is America announcing that it is ending its 17-year-old war in Afghanistan. For its part, Washington wants guarantees that al-Qaeda or IS will never be able to use Afghan territory to launch terrorist attacks.
The US expects Taliban to show some flexibility on the timetable for withdrawal, in view of the fact that pulling out all 14,000 troops and all their equipment and bases may take months if not longer. The Taliban are focussed on obtaining a US declaration of planned withdrawal, which would reassure their rank-and-file that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – as the Taliban calls themselves – has won the jihad. Securing a withdrawal while the Taliban refuse to negotiate with Kabul is of course problematic.
Even if a way could be found around this problem, few in Washington trust that the Taliban would prevent al-Qaida or IS from using Afghan territory to launch terrorist attacks, as they did in the run-up to September 11, 2001. Taliban leaders have tried to reassure US officials that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has pledged allegiance to the Taliban and is now engaged in fighting against IS.
While chief negotiator Mullah Baradar, who co-founded the Taliban along with Mullah Omar, expresses his sincere desire for peace, some members of his negotiating group remain sceptical of American intentions. Given the Taliban’s long association with Pakistan, improving US relations with Islamabad has become all the more important in the weeks leading up to the Afghan elections in September and more importantly, Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
US negotiators are pressing ahead to conclude an agreement covering all four points before Afghans vote in September. But their task is complicated by acrimonious relations between Pakistan and the US. In late 2018 with an angry tweet Trump suspended over $1 billion in military aid to Pakistan, accusing the country of “lies and deceit,” adding later that America’s efforts had not succeeded in persuading Islamabad to do “a damn thing for us”. He reminded Pakistan that it harboured Osama bin Laden for years before American forces found and killed him. After a long, bitter war against the Taliban, which was often backed by Pakistan, the time has come for all parties to try and reset relations. Observers in Washington expect an attempt by the Trump administration to win Pakistani support for its Afghan withdrawal plan.
Despite Trump’s anger about Pakistan, a détente with the country seems unavoidable if Trump wishes to keep his promise of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. In his January 2019 State of the Union address, Trump said “As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counterterrorism.” If he is able to achieve troop withdrawal as a promise kept, he would score important points with his base. If the withdrawal does take place, India can only hope that peace in Afghanistan does not lead Pakistan to redirect in strategic focus to Kashmir.