Qadir Khan Yousafzai
United States’ former Ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker has likened Washington’s talks with the Afghan Taliban with those that took place in Vietnam before America’s defeat. Crocker has said that sitting on the negotiating table with the enemy is a sign of surrender. He further stated that the United States finds itself in a much more difficult position than it was in Vietnam , for it has lost all leverage vis-à-vis the Taliban.
Indeed, there is reason to make such an assertion. The Afghan Taliban, over the years, have gone from strength to strength. According to estimates, last year, each month 70 check posts fell to the Taliban. NATO and US forces also lost many of their military fiefdoms. The Taliban also captured Tehsil centers and provincial capitals. Moreover, the Taliban annexed 29 districts of the country with ease. In a brazen manner, the Taliban carried out 12,000 attacks on US and NATO forces, downing 26 helicopters and drones. The Taliban also killed some high profile figures to include Commander of Paktika‘s Special Police Force, Azizullah Karwan , Abdul Jabbar Qaharman of Helmand, Kandahar’s police chief, Abdul Raziq and many others like Generals Naimatullah and Momin.
Taliban’s attacks on US and Afghan forces, and talks between them and the US went hand in hand. The Moscow talks saw 12 countries participate in it. Rounds of direct talks were held in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. However, owing to objections from the Afghan government, no talks were held in Pakistan.
During the recently-held talks in Qatar, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban took up two points from the last Qatar meet : US’ troop withdrawal and ensuring that Afghan territory poses no threat to the US and other countries. In the last meeting, though the US agreed on a withdrawal, there was a disagreement on its timeline and schedule. The Taliban want to give the US, three to five months to pull out their troops instead of 18 months. Now, the Taliban and the US have agreed to constitute a joint committee that will prepare mechanisms for withdrawal. Taliban’s sources confirm that the very committee will also give shape to the agreement with minor amendments. The agreement will be signed by some important countries acting as guarantors. The Taliban did not want to disturb political negotiations due to the ongoing spat of GCC countries with Iran and Qatar. This is the reason as to why the Taliban objected to Khalilzad’s insistence to hold talks in Saudi Arabia, given that the process was already going forward without pressure. The Taliban said that the process was being complicated by involving other Islamic countries. The war of nerves between the Taliban and the Afghan government has made it difficult for other Islamic countries to make talks decisive. Besides troops’ withdrawal and terrorism emanating from Afghan territory, the mechanism that will oversee the process was also discussed in the 5th round of the Qatar talks. The talks have entered into a critical and important phase with more rounds expected in April and May this year.
Consultations with neighboring countries and opposition parties have found acquiescence of the Taliban. The Afghan Taliban are in regular contact with important countries. Its meetings with Qatar ‘s Prime Minister and Uzbekistan ‘s Foreign Minister , gives the Afghan Taliban ‘s stature more elevation. The meeting with Afghanistan’s neighbouring country, Uzbekistan, at a time when President Ashraf Ghani has also met Uzbek officials , is significant. By the looks of things, the multi-country efforts to solve the Afghan issue may play a lead role in the finalization of a strategic agreement .. They want all US troops to withdraw, be they in the compounds or those training Afghan forces. Khalilzad hinted at pulling out only those troops that were stationed in compounds but the Taliban rejected it while expressing their resentment to the presence of even a single US soldier. In addition to that, a formula to chart out a post-withdrawal dispensation in Afghanistan will be devised by another committee.
The Taliban believe that a consensus between political and religious parties will be reached by the time the full withdrawal takes place. After the withdrawal, a broad-based government will set up institutions and defense forces anew, while taking decisions and entering into contract with other countries to harness Afghanistan’s potential and resources.
Given the importance of the talks and its agenda, Haibatullah Akhunzada and Mullah Baradar’s decision to constitute a joint delegation was made. The delegation included the likes of Abbas Stanikzai, Zia Ur Rehman Madni and Anas Haqqani among others. These representatives are directly in contact and ably leading talks with US’ interlocutors on the points mentioned above. Mullah Baradar is the person steering the talks while brother of the chief of the Haqqani Network, Anas Haqqani is a prominent delegate in the Afghan contingent. Realizing the importance of Baradar in the Qatar talks, travel bans were removed and passport issued. Baradar was also warmly received by the Qatari Foreign Minister. Baradar met the American delegation for the first time and also discussed a range of issues with the Qatari Prime Minister.
While these talks are ongoing and the US is all set to end the war in Afghanistan, the Afghan government is creating an impediment. In a letter to President Trump, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called upon the former to reverse his decision to withdraw troops and resort to cutting expenditures instead. The letter was written at a time when the US and the Afghan Taliban were holding peace talks. Complaints were lodged in the United Nations over Moscow peace talks and the planned meeting between the Taliban and Pakistan’s government officials. In a strongly-worded protest against Pakistan’s allegedly subversive activities, the Afghan government called Pakistan’s invitation to the Taliban as an infringement of its sovereignty. The Ghani-led government vehemently objected how it was bypassed in the entire scheme of things, something that is a threat to the country’s security. The Afghan government has also said that circumventing it directly affects efforts to bring lasting peace in Afghanistan. India too wants the peace process to be led by and under the leadership of the Afghan government. Though the Afghan government’s attaché Umer Duadzai has hinted that members of the Afghan Jirga are likely to talk to the Afghan Taliban, the latter has not confirmed anything in this regard. Trilateral talks in Islamabad were primarily cancelled because of the government in Kabul. The Taliban repudiated rumors about Mullah Baradar’s arrest by Pakistan.
The colossal cost incurred by the US in the Afghan war has made the entire war effort a real white elephant. This is the reason as to why ace diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad has been entrusted with the task of expediting the peace process that also paves the way for Washington’s exit from the seemingly endless quagmire. Despite incessant rounds of talks, the process is moving at a snail’s pace. If this keeps on meandering at this pace, there are chances that the infamously notorious US security agency, Black Water, may make an entry in Afghanistan. Such suspicions were given air when a Recoil Magazine headline about Black Water read: “We are Coming.” Thus, one cannot rule out chances of Black Water getting the mantle of roughing it out in Afghanistan should Qatar talks fail. Military affairs analyst, Bill Roggio has said that complete US’ withdrawal is likely to result in Taliban’s quick takeover of large swathes of territory and the fragmentation of the Afghan security apparatus. Such an eventuality is a cause of concern for the international community and the Kabul administration. All this makes the Qatar talks and the entire peace process all the more critical.
Qadir Khan Yousafzai is a Columnist at Jehan Pakistan.