In keeping with his preferred way of conducting diplomacy, US President Donald Trump, in a series of tweets, has slammed the recent upsurge in Taliban terror attacks and called off the ‘peace negotiations’ between the US and Taliban. The immediate provocation, according to Trump, was a suicide bombing in Kabul in which a US soldier was killed along with a dozen other people. He has also questioned the credibility and reliability of the Taliban. Pointing to the refusal of the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire during the negotiations, he has expressed doubts about their “power to negotiate a meaningful agreement.”
That Trump decided to walk out of the ‘peace talks’ when virtually everything had been settled and, by his own admission, the Taliban and Afghanistan president were going to ‘secretly’ meet in Camp David, fits into a pattern of sorts — Trump’s now-on-now-off negotiating strategy aimed at unsettling his interlocutors by indulging in brinkmanship to get a better deal.
Trump was quite right in reading the spike in Taliban attacks as an attempt by them to build what he called ‘a false leverage’. But the Taliban were not just ratcheting up the attacks to build leverages against the Afghan government, they were also responding to Trump’s declaration that the US will “always have a presence…and high intelligence” in Afghanistan. It was a clear signal to the Americans that if the US and other foreign troops stay back in Afghanistan then they will be targeted. For their part, the Taliban have been quite clear and consistent in what they want out of any deal with the Americans. The draft agreement that was negotiated by the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad virtually gave in to everything demanded by the Taliban. The only compromise on the Taliban side appears to have been the somewhat extended time-frame — 15-18 months — for withdrawal of all foreign troops.
It was seen as being such a bad deal that there was a major push back from inside the US establishment. Not only were officials in the Trump team expressing their reservations, there was also pressure built by some of his close political associates who warned against a complete pull out from Afghanistan. Then there was the dire warning against the peace deal issued by nine former ambassadors to Kabul. Such was the reluctance of anyone to be associated with the deal that even the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had refused to become a signatory to the deal with the Taliban until it was first approved by the President and all other parties.
The Afghans were, of course, livid at being by-passed in the negotiations and being confronted with a fait accompli by Khalilzad. The fact that Khalilzad had agreed to the Taliban referring to themselves as the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ (almost as if it was a government in exile) in the deal document was seen as a completely undermining and side-lining of the legitimate government of Afghanistan.
Other than the Taliban who have been unabashedly behaving as the victors during the peace talks with the Americans because they can sense the desperation of the US for a deal, the only other person who has been talking up the deal has been the dealmaker himself — Khalilzad. Ever since he started the negotiations, he has been using his Twitter account to give a positive spin to talks.
Clearly, the deal being worked out had just too many loose ends which Khalilzad wasn’t able to or interested in tying up. He appeared to be working on a one-point agenda — withdrawal of US troops before the next US presidential elections, something that Trump was pushing for. The aim was to have relative peace until then and once the US exited, it could pretend that Afghanistan didn’t exist.
Given that Trump was quite adamant about ending the US engagement in Afghanistan, or at least substantially reducing it, what exactly happened to make him change his mind at the very last moment and walk out of what was for all intents and purposes a done deal? Is there a plan at work here or is it just something being done on impulse? From whatever is available in the public domain, it is clear that there is no dearth of people in the US and other parts of the world who have serious concerns about the peace deal. But while the naysayers are quick to point to all the pitfalls and minefields that will follow an agreement with the Taliban, not the least of which is the question of who will guarantee and who will enforce whatever is agreed, no one has alternatives to offer.
As things stand, there are three possible explanations. The first is that this sudden withdrawal from the peace talks is part of a negotiating strategy. The last-minute shifting of goalposts is aimed at extracting something more from the Taliban. Having come so close to getting what they want, Trump assumes that the Taliban would agree to go the extra mile rather than risk an outbreak of hostilities and a prolonged war. In a recent interview, the lead negotiator of the Taliban said that they wanted an end to the war and to go back to their homes. But if US calculation is based on war fatigue among the Taliban, then it is a huge misreading of the situation.
If anything, the Taliban feel the foreign forces are suffering from war fatigue and won’t be able to persevere on the battlefield for long. The Taliban think they are winning. They have the momentum behind them. The terms and conditions under which the US has dialogued with them has only reaffirmed this conviction. Even in the early 2000s when the Taliban had been routed and ousted, they always maintained that they had both time and staying power to see the back of the ‘occupying’ armies. Nearly two decades later, when they are on the verge of victory, it is highly unlikely that they will agree to climb down and change the terms of the deal.
They have already indicated as much in their response to the Trump tweets calling off the negotiations. They have warned that the US will pay a huge price in men and material, as also in diplomatic credibility and political prestige by reneging on the deal. If anything, they have only hardened their stand on the exit of all foreign troops from Afghanistan. Perhaps, the US calculation is that they can use Pakistan to lean upon the Taliban. But this again is a slippery slope. For one, the Pakistanis will demand their pound of flesh, which the US might not find easy to give especially if it relates to doing more on Kashmir. In any case, it is unlikely that the Pakistanis who see in the Taliban victory a culmination of their strategy to bleed the Americans, defeat them, expel them and extend their sway, or at least preponderant influence in Afghanistan, will throw it all away by taking on the Taliban at the behest of the US.
For another, it assumes that the Taliban are still entirely under Pakistan’s control, a somewhat debatable proposition. Over the last few weeks, there have been some indications that the Taliban have their own leverages over Pakistan. One indication of this came soon after Imran Khan’s US visit. While in the US, Khan made some noises about getting the Taliban to open a dialogue with the Afghan government. Soon after, there was a sudden flurry of terror attacks claimed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Balochistan and the erstwhile FATA region. Later, after Pakistani leaders tried to link peace in Afghanistan with US involvement in Kashmir, the Taliban issued a statement delinking the same.
There is, therefore, very little to suggest that the Taliban will be amenable to showing flexibility to strike a deal with the US at this stage and compromise on issues like ceasefire or a dialogue with the Afghan government. Meanwhile, the ambiguously worded assurance of treating women ‘within framework of Islam and Afghan tradition’ means nothing because this will be interpreted by the Taliban in their own medieval and misogynistic way. But for anyone to think that the Taliban will sign on to the Universal Declaration of Rights simply to get a peace deal through with the US, they have another thought coming.
If anything, if Trump indeed wants to resume the talks now, the Taliban will drive a much harder bargain and the terms on offer will be a lot worse than what had been agreed so far. In fact, all that the US might get is only an assurance of safe passage. All other modalities — ceasefire, intra-Afghan talks, women rights, etc. — could be off the table.
But if negotiations are out, then the second possible explanation could be to double down on the military effort. But the question is what will be new, and different in the military effort to break the stalemate? How will the momentum of the Taliban be broken and reversed? And if the idea is to stare the Taliban down, then for how long will the US and its allies be ready to sustain this stalemate — politically, militarily and economically? It is all very well to caution against withdrawal, but what is now proposed that hasn’t been tried earlier? Is the US and its allies ready to extend the war effort into Pakistan, or use non-kinetic pressures to force compellence on that country? And if there are no clear answers to these questions, then persisting with the military option is only to reinforce failure.
The third possible option/explanation is that rather than earn the infamy of signing a bad deal, the US decides to exit without one. Of course, exercising this option will open a whole new can of worms. Even with the US and its allies providing military and economic support to the Afghan government, the prospects for worsting the Taliban appear bleak. Worse, Afghanistan will once again become a playground for competing regional interests trying to undercut each other and enhance their influence inside Afghanistan. The chances of regional countries coming together on a common platform to stabilise Afghanistan are quite dim.
All things considered, there are no good options in Afghanistan. Nor are there any costless options. The terrible trajectory of descent into chaos that awaits Afghanistan was hardly going to change if the peace deal had been signed. And now that the deal is off the table, things aren’t going to unfold any more differently. Regardless of the eventual outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan, in the final analysis, Afghans and Afghanistan will continue to bear an unconscionably high cost in human lives lost and the country laid desolate by violence and war.
The author is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.
This article was first published on ORF.