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US is exhausted & envoy Zalmay Khalilzad may just pull off the impossible in Afghanistan

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Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani has little choice because the Americans desperately want to leave.

Peace could be breaking out in Afghanistan, after 18 long years of America’s longest war, more than the First World War and the Second World War and the Korean war combined. If US special envoy of Afghan origin Zalmay Khalilzad pulls off the impossible, American troops may finally be going home. This can happen if the Taliban promises to keep the country free and safe from international insurgents like the Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Khalilzad flew to Kabul Monday after six days of talks with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, to carry on a conversation with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani on the future of Afghanistan.

Khalilzad has been on a regional tour this past month, first to Delhi and then Islamabad, to explain to Afghanistan’s near and far neighbours about the pulls and pressures of negotiating with an enemy that in effect already controls half the territory; to persuade Pakistan to get the Taliban to the talks table and keep them there; to assuage Delhi that Pakistan will not run away with the lead role.

Also Read: Why Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad is Donald Trump’s ace in peace talks

But Khalilzad seems to have been trumped at his game by a former Pentagon official, Laurel Miller, whose brief on the future of Afghanistan has been floating around Kabul for some time now. Miller, of course, is far more blunt about the proposed peace deal, which is why Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has been quite skittish these days, while the Pakistanis next door pull out their trump card – Mullah Baradar, a senior Taliban figure who has been living in Karachi for several years, most likely under the control of the Pakistani intelligence agency, ISI.

So, here is what Miller’s 50-page draft accord on the unfolding peace process says: An interim government will oversee power-sharing between the existing Afghan government and the Taliban, at which point the US troops will leave. The Taliban will sever links with all foreign terrorist organisations and the US will continue assistance to Afghanistan. The interim government and a High Ulema Council will discuss all changes to a prospective Constitution.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani is already unhappy about the possibility of a deal in which the Taliban shares power without responsibility, especially since they have been killing Afghans without the slightest show of mercy. Ghani recently told a Swiss audience that as many as 45,000 Afghans had died since he came to power in 2014.

At the end of the day, Ghani may have little choice. The Americans desperately want to leave. This is the longest war they have ever fought, more than 6,000 days and nights – in which 2,372 Americans have been killed and more than 20,000 wounded as well as more than a trillion dollars spent.

Also Read: NATO does not want India at Afghanistan peace talks table

America is exhausted. It wants out. Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama understood that desperate need to get out of a quagmire, fighting someone else’s war, but he wasn’t able to cut through the double-dealing of the Pakistani establishment next door. Trump, the businessman-President has, done much better in being able to see through some of Rawalpindi’s hypocrisy.

In an interview with the New York Times correspondent in Kabul, Mujib Mashal, Khalilzad confirmed the all-important bare bones of a deal. He also stated the importance of direct talks between the Taliban and Kabul, but the fact remains that the Taliban aren’t willing to enter into any other quid pro quo just yet.

Certainly, 18 months is a long time in the life of any peace deal. The Taliban could either walk out if they find things not going their way or simply take over power, just as they did in 1996 when they entered Kabul and hung then-president Najibullah from the nearest lamp-pole.

But 2019 is not 1996 and even the Taliban recognise that they cannot turn the clock back to the Middle Ages and take away the gains of independence and democracy, including to women. The three-day truce last year when the Taliban dropped their weapons in exchange for a lull in fighting was a real one. Many Afghans say that the Taliban leadership ended the truce quickly because they realised that peace was proving far too attractive an alternative.

What of Pakistan? It was one among the three countries in the world (the others being Saudi Arabia and the UAE) that recognised the Taliban in its earlier incarnation in power. The ISI has virtually protected several Taliban shuras in Quetta, Miranshah and in Karachi from the US eyes these last several years – so that when the time came to deal, it would be able to play the Taliban card in the high-stakes great game of inner Asia.

But something has changed in the Pashtun country. The fruits of peace, however small, have enabled Afghan Pashtuns to see the real face of the Pakistani establishment, which wants to control the strategic chessboard of the region. Ashraf Ghani himself is a classic example of this turnaround.

What of India? Delhi chose the economic route in 2001, after the Americans bombed the Taliban out of Afghanistan, to help that country. It was a wise decision. But today, the Afghans are asking for more – help with training military personnel as well as defence equipment.

Shouldn’t India be helping its friends? If India doesn’t want Pakistan to fill in the vacuum that will be created when the US troops leave, then it must work with Kabul to fill it.

Also read: US, Taliban close to finalising peace deal to end 18-year-long Afghan war

In that sense, Army chief Bipin Rawat is right, even if his language was more blunt than most. “India must join the bandwagon,” Rawat said at the Observer Research Foundation conference earlier in the month. He probably means that India should do more. That will certainly be music to Kabul’s ears.

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  1. No links with foreign terror organisations. No moving the clock back from democracy to the Middle Ages. Afghan girls and women free to study and work. Continuing foreign assistance to help build the country. That seems a fair way to draw the curtain on a very long war. Indian diplomacy should ask itself some searching questions.

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