Thirty years after the Geneva Accords provided a fig leaf for the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Americans are now holding talks with the Taliban for a similar negotiated exit. But just as the withdrawal of Soviet forces did not ensure reconciliation, the departure of the US troops alone will not guarantee peace.
A genuine peace deal would involve a commitment by the Taliban to halt their attacks in return for inclusion in Afghanistan’s political process. The framework agreement between Taliban interlocutors and the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, proposes American withdrawal in return for a Taliban guarantee that Afghan territory would never be used by terrorists.
Khalilzad is a seasoned negotiator and understands Afghanistan, where he was born, very well. He knows that the Taliban have so far made no significant concession and that their guarantees are unreliable.
But he is constrained by President Donald Trump’s keenness to bring American troops home. Khalilzad seems to be working under a deadline set by Trump otherwise he would have emphasised on a ceasefire and release of hostages while talking to the Taliban before even mentioning US troop withdrawal.
As a real estate man, Trump knows that one cannot get full value of property in a distress sale. He has attempted to reduce the atmosphere of desperation for withdrawal in his State of the Union speech before the US Congress. Trump’s new position is that US troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan only after progress is made in the peace talks.
That might provide some comfort to those, like former ambassador Ryan Crocker, who saw the framework agreement as ‘surrender’ and those, such as former Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins, who warned against rushing into a deal with the Taliban.
But Trump tends to change his mind on details even as he sticks to his core belief that the US cannot be ‘the world’s policeman’. He had originally announced a strategy for Afghanistan that involved greater pressure on Pakistan and a signal to the Taliban that the US was willing to stay on in Afghanistan indefinitely.
That strategy probably led to Pakistan supporting Khalilzad’s efforts to talk directly to the Taliban. Pakistani officials helped Khalilzad come face to face with Taliban leaders whose presence in Pakistan had been officially denied for years.
But Trump’s eagerness to withdraw from the Middle East and Afghanistan is well-known and to hardcore Jihadis, it signals American retreat. Jihadis across the world already believe that they are on the verge of forcing the United States out of Afghanistan just as they forced the Soviet Union to withdraw.
A US cut and run will plunge Afghanistan into circumstances no different than the ones that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Pakistan will still want its proxies in control of Kabul and there will be resistance to the return of the Taliban’s harsh rule as well as to any other force too beholden to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
From the Taliban’s perspective, negotiating directly with a US presidential envoy gives them some legitimacy and the prospect of driving a bargain independent of Pakistan. By accepting their assurance on not letting terrorists use Afghan soil, the US special envoy has implicitly forgiven the terrorist acts perpetrated by the Taliban and their Haqqani Network.
Khalilzad has rightly pointed out that “you can’t eat an elephant in one bite,” suggesting that critics do not know everything he has discussed with the Taliban. “The path to peace doesn’t often run in a straight line,” he tweeted, adding that the situation in Afghanistan was complex and “like all sensitive talks, not everything is conducted in public”.
According to Khalilzad, “there is still work to be done on other vital issues like intra-Afghan dialogue and a complete ceasefire.”
But by announcing the withdrawal as its goal, the Trump administration has already repeated the folly of the Obama administration. When a superpower signals its desperation to get out of a conflict, the negotiation process that follows is inevitably seen as going through the motions of providing diplomatic cover.
Pakistan has facilitated Khalilzad’s talks with the Taliban with an eye on the prospect of renewed US economic and military assistance. Pakistan’s friends – such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE – encouraged Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the table, out of concern for Pakistan’s increasing isolation under American pressure.
The Taliban and Pakistan have given assurances on clearing out international terrorists several times since 1996, and their promises have often turned out to be inadequate or outright false.
The fact that promises of Pakistan’s generals did not prevent the country from becoming home to Al-Qaeda’s founder Osama bin Laden should make Americans wonder whether the Taliban’s promises would fare any better.
Pakistan could play a positive role in helping the Afghan Peace Process, provided it changes its decades-old objectives in Afghanistan. Islamabad should be prepared to befriend any legitimately elected government in Kabul, instead of trying to impose an Islamist, Pashtun, pro-Pakistan and anti-Indian Afghan regime.
The Taliban, too, would have to change their core ideology and concede space to pluralism. So far, there is no sign that they intend to show tolerance for religious minorities, women, or even non-bearded males if they ever return to power.
The Trump administration must insist on a change in Taliban’s outlook towards other Afghans if there is to be lasting peace in Afghanistan. So far, it has shown little interest in affirming a commitment to the progress and freedom of Afghans, won after expending Afghan and American blood as well as US treasure.
Many Afghans believe that an Afghan settlement based on concessions to the Taliban and Pakistan would only lead to another war between Afghan patriots and Pakistan’s proxies. After all, between 1994 and 2001, Afghans resisted the Taliban without external support and could do so again, if they are forced to do so.
President Ashraf Ghani’s choice as his vice-presidential running mate for the next Afghan elections, Amrullah Saleh, pointed out recently that Afghanistan “was not invented by the West on September 12, 2001 and won’t disappear if and as they wish to leave”.
Americans and Afghans have much to be proud of because of their 17-year partnership. Afghan girls are going to school in ever larger numbers, women are not forced to wear burqas or stay at home, the economy is a lot better than it used to be, and the cities destroyed by decades of conflict have been rebuilt. These achievements should not be destroyed by a hasty US withdrawal.
Trump has often voiced concern over the hefty cost of US engagement in Afghanistan. But much of that cost is the result of the American predilection for spending abroad what they would at home. American contractors and American suppliers, not Afghans, raised the cost and a rationalisation of expenditure would be the solution rather than abandoning the Afghans altogether.
Above all, Americans must work towards a deal that leaves behind a stable and peaceful Afghanistan instead of constantly revealing their anxiety to just leave.
Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His latest book is Reimagining Pakistan.