Afghanistan recalled its ambassador from Islamabad after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called the current Afghan government a hurdle to peace process and said that an interim administration should replace it.
Khan’s words formally enunciated, for the first-time perhaps, the nearly two-decade-old undeclared Pakistani policy to see the government in Kabul toppled, as Islamabad perceived it as India-friendly. Those of us who have lived through the 1980s, vividly recall the Pakistani insistence on calling for the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government to be replaced by an interim, ostensibly neutral government.
Back then, Pakistan – just like its Taliban proxy today – refused to talk directly to the Afghan government and the United Nations special envoy Diego Cardovez shuttled between Kabul and Islamabad. Even when the parleys did take place in Switzerland, they were conducted as the so-called “proximity talks”, where Cardovez went from room to room.
The process culminated in the April 1988 as the Geneva Accords, leading to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and an ensuing civil war, endless bloodshed, geopolitical chaos, and ultimately, the Taliban and al-Qaeda occupying and turning that hapless country into a laboratory for trans-national jihadist terrorism.
The position taken by Imran Khan, who is widely perceived to be a stooge installed by the Pakistan’s powerful army, is no surprise. A fragmented Afghanistan with a weak, Pakistan-installed regime, is what Pakistan – or more accurately its army – has desired for decades.
What is disconcerting is that the runaway train of the ostensible peace talks with Taliban, led by the US special envoy to Afghanistan, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, might just deliver Pakistan and its jihadist proxy at their destination.
While the US Ambassador to Kabul, John Bass, chided PM Khan via Twitter for ball-tampering– a thinly-veiled reference to Khan’s cricketing days and allegations of cheating – it is Khalilzad’s handling of talks with the Taliban that have given an opening to both the domestic and foreign opponents of the current Afghan government to take a jab at it.
Khalilzad has been running a series of direct talks with the Taliban, which had drawn little scrutiny in the US until an apparently-calculated outburst by the Afghan National Security Advisor (NSA) Dr. Hamdullah Mohib, in which he not only impugned the US envoy’s tactics but also his motives.
Mohib rightly accused Khalilzad of shutting the Afghan government out of the talks with the Taliban but his assertion that Khalilzad is jockeying to assume leadership of an interim setup – or worse – the viceroy to Afghanistan, is moot.
Khalilzad’s track-record indicates that either he prefers not to speak truth to the power he serves i.e. the US presidents or is unable to convince them of the veracity of his argument. After all, the veteran diplomat was instrumental in bringing Younis Khalis, a mujahideen commander and nominal boss of the notorious terrorist Jalaluddin Haqqani, to Washington, D.C. to meet Ronald Reagan in 1980s. As a member of President George W. Bush’s inner coterie on Afghanistan, Khalilzad is not known to have done much to persuade the US in accepting the Taliban’s unconditional offer to surrender to Hamid Karzai.
And then as the US Ambassador to Kabul in 2003, Khalilzad participated in the misadventure where the US took its eyes off the ball in Afghanistan and invaded Iraq. In fact, Khalilzad subsequently became the US ambassador to Baghdad.
Whatever his motives might have been, Khalilzad’s work has not necessarily produced the results beneficial to both the US interests and those of the countries he has served in. It seems like Khalilzad has been way too keen to present to the US presidents – at whose pleasure he has always served – what they wanted to hear. And this time may not be any different. Mohib, who was a very dynamic Afghan ambassador to DC. before becoming the NSA, was most likely not shooting from the hip. The words may have been his but the message unmistakably from the Afghan president.
Khalilzad has effectively put the cart before the horse in his negotiations with the Taliban. The five rounds of talks, with the sixth one coming up next month, have undermined Ashraf Ghani’s government, if not outright delegitimised it.
By agreeing to shut the Afghan government out of the talks, the Khalilzad regimen has endorsed the Taliban position that the insurgents don’t have to negotiate with the Afghan government, and more importantly, accept the current constitution, as prerequisites to peace process. Taliban also did not have to agree to a ceasefire before the these talks and, as it appears, before a US withdrawal.
In a mad dash to the exit, Khalilzad has essentially given the Taliban a walkover. He has also indicated on several occasions that a draft agreement is in place between the US and the Taliban. Khalilzad has also egged on Ghani’s domestic political opponents by continuously calling for a ‘broad team” to negotiate with the Taliban in what he calls an intra-Afghan dialogue thus diluting the prerogative of the central government over making war and peace.
The Afghan opposition, on its part, wasted no time in piling on Ghani’s government by first going to Moscow for direct talks with the Taliban and then announcing intentions for a similar round in Qatar. The net result of Khalilzad’s minus-one formula where Kabul has been kept out of everything till the end, would be a US-Taliban agreement which would then be presented to the Afghan government as the fait accompli.
For its part, Ghani’s government could have averted some, if not all, of what has transpired in the past several months. The repeated postponement of the presidential elections, which were originally supposed to be held in April, but have now been delayed till September, has opened Ghani’s flank to his opposition’s largely opportunistic attacks but somewhat justified criticism.
However, the election delays were not solely of the Ghani’s making and were induced in large part by Khalilzad’s push for the so-called peace process as President Donald Trump lost patience with prolonged military involvement in Afghanistan. For his part, Trump wants to check off withdrawal from Afghanistan, on his presidential résumé, before getting his re-election campaign started this fall.
Another important road not taken was a timely convening of the Loya Jirga or the grand national assembly. While Loya Jirga, historically, was the assembly of the Pashtun tribes and tribal confederacies, it has been codified as a constitutional body in the 2004 Afghan Constitutionas “the highest manifestation of the will of the people of Afghanistan”, which is to be convened “to decide on issues related to independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity as well as supreme national interests”.
- As unlikely as it may seem, the man who could put brakes on the Khalilzad train, is Ashraf Ghani.
A more traditional “consultative Loya jirga” was announced by the Afghan High Peace Council, but that too has been delayed. While the Taliban and their backers, prosecuted their war and negotiations with singular focus on getting rid of the central Afghan government, the Afghan polity has remained fractured, bickering and outright hostile to each other. Instead of getting their domestic ducks in a row, the Afghan government and opposition have lost precious time and political space, and in the process, the initiative to the Taliban.
The trust deficit between both partners and adversaries, however, indicates that the Khalilzad-Taliban agreement would probably be dead on arrival. The Afghan government’s mistrust of the US, especially its point-man Khalilzad, is out in the open. The Taliban obviously don’t trust the government or the US. The political opposition doesn’t hide its distrust of the Kabul government. And all the parties have serious qualms about Pakistan.
It seems unlikely that given the palpable anxiety on all sides, rancour and short tempers among the interlocutors, and imposition of an artificial timeline by Khalilzad, a durable peace would be the imminent outcome. This could mean a protracted conflict or worse. If the status quo ante prevails, Afghanistan would continue to haemorrhage. The government forces have lately sustained some of the heaviest losses in years, but the Taliban are not going unscathed either.
But above all, the civilian population has to bear the brunt of war, including the US airstrikes as both sides try to secure an edge on the battlefield, in order to buttress their negotiating position.
Worse case scenarios, however, are within the realm of possibility. A precipitous withdrawal of the US forces – or more importantly armaments, logistics and economic support – or a diplomatic rupture followed by disengagement, can potentially lead to a collapse of the central government in Kabul. And that would be a development that no one, including the Taliban and Pakistan, can handle.
The collapse of Iraqi army and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the immediate aftermath of the US military withdrawal from Iraq is way too fresh in everyone’s memory, to understand that shatter zones and ungoverned spaces, which are then immediately occupied by the transnational terrorists of the most lethal variety, are perilously quick to form if the nascent state structures are allowed to collapse or if older states fail.
While the US may believe that it has met it strategic goals in Afghanistan, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the US exit from Iraq are case studies in how both regions became transnational, terrorist breeding grounds within a short span of the superpowers’ departure. This precisely is the outcome that has to be avoided in Afghanistan.
So far, the world powers like Russia and China and regional players like India, Iran and the Persian Gulf countries have had a convergence of view that an unstable Afghanistan is neither acceptable nor desirable. The only exception remains Pakistan, whose national security calculus, wherein a weak, India-averse Afghanistan, is the prize, remains unchanged.
This delicate détente, however, could change the minute the shoe is on the other foot. While the Russians and Iranians have played footsie with the Taliban and the Chinese have engaged with them, mostly to thumb their nose at the US, neither one of them would seek or tolerate the Taliban return to power in Kabul.
India, which has been the most reticent of the regional players, would absolutely abhor to see a Taliban comeback. After all, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the outfit which claimed the recent Pulwama attack had sprung its leader Maulana Masood Azhar from an Indian prison in an exchange for a hijacked Indian plane and passengers, that were flown to the Taliban-ruled Kandahar.
It would perhaps be a matter of days, not months, before these countries cozying up to the Taliban, drop it like a hot potato and switch their support to the Kabul government and other anti-Taliban forces. The notable and most ominous exception would remain Pakistan. The net effect of the realignment would be a return to the 1990s-style civil war.
As unlikely as it may seem, the man who could put brakes on the Khalilzad train, is Ashraf Ghani. He would have to win-over his political opponents, and fast. Get a time-line out for Loya Jirga and the presidential elections, immediately. He would need to reach out to his regional back-up options swiftly. He’d also need to emphasise with President Trump that Khalilzad running amok is neither in the US interest nor that of Afghanistan.
As the recent spate of voices raised in D.C. against Khalilzad railroading the so-called peace process indicates, Ghani has more allies in that town than he might think. The US, and more importantly, the Afghans have fought the 18-year war in the hopes to end all wars in that country.
But unless it is checked in its steps, the opaque, hurried, unverifiable and unguaranteed process that Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is running, may bring a peace to end all peace.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.