The Only Way Out Of Afghanistan Is Through Pakistan
The US wants to get out of Afghanistan. Pakistan can sense the impending doom, a return to the early 1990s when after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a complete abandonment of the country by the newly-created The Russian Federation, Afghanistan was quite literally thrown to the dogs. The United States had stopped routing aid to Afghanistan through Pakistan, had imposed the Pressler sanctions and the two countries relationships had progressed to an irreversible thaw. Afghan’s slide to civil strife and a complete breakdown of law and order in the country didn’t come as unexpected.
The situation would be similarly bleak if the 14,000 or so American troops stationed in Afghanistan withdraw prematurely. Despite the power and resources given to both the National Directorate of Security and the Afghan Army in the two decades since 9/11, Afghanistan’s security infrastructure lacks the wherewithal to prevent the Afghan Taliban from storming Kabul or for the government forces to hold sway in the provincial capitals. After the American withdrawal, which is imminent, a weak Afghan government desperately clinging on to power in Kabul and a few provincial capitals, and an intense civil war taking place in the surrounding countryside seems like a very logical outcome.
Pakistan doesn’t want that. It doesn’t bode well for the stability of the region and especially for Pakistan’s already vulnerable economy. That’s why Pakistan is going all-out to ensure a settlement in Afghanistan, pushing and prodding the Afghan Taliban to come to terms with US demands. The Taliban have been negotiating with the US directly since 2011 when Richard Holbrooke opened diplomatic channels with them through Germany and Afghanistan. At that time however, Pakistan did not have any kind of liaison role because the US distrusted Pakistan, accused the establishment of double-crossing- them and thought they might get in the way of negotiations. The situation is different now. A much more pragmatic US administration has understood that it’s in her interests to use Pakistan to coerce the Taliban to accept some of its less appealing demands.
The most notable sticking point for the US negotiation team under Zalmay Khalilzad is that the Taliban recognise the legitimately elected government of Ashraf Ghani and hold talks with them too. The black turbans, however, consider the Ghani administration a puppet government propped up by the US and deem it pointless to have any kinds of talks with a fangless President. While both sides had increased attacks – suicide bombings in the case of the Taliban – and air attacks in the case of United States in a bid to strengthen their position on the negotiating table, it was pointless because the negotiations did not result in any kind of deal.
Only Pakistan has the capacity and ability to force concessions from the Afghan Taliban. While it will be wrong to say that the Pakistani military controls the Taliban, they have a certain amount of leverage over them because the Taliban leadership is based within the territorial confines of Pakistan. Pakistani security forces released Mullah Baradar, the successor to Mullah Omar and now political chief of the Afghan Taliban, in October of 2018 on the request of Zalmay Khalilzad because US Officials wanted to conduct talks with him. It is not too hard to conceive that with a little arm twisting and pressure on high-ranking militants’ families living in Pakistan, the Pakistani establishment would not be able to influence the Taliban to not only accept but politically deal with the current Afghan dispensation.
People in the United States might morally abhor the social attitudes of the Taliban, but realpolitik dictates that US diplomats they engage the Taliban until they find an acceptable solution to the Afghan problem. Trump is seeking re-election and hearkens for a glorified exit from Afghanistan to sell to Middle America which is increasingly demanding that the US revert from all its foreign military commitments and move towards isolationism. Trump’s political base will not be satisfied until there’s a permanent ceasefire after the US withdrawal. Americans don’t want to see a repeat of the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, where soldiers were clambering on top of each other to get to the last US helicopter fleeing from Saigon – the city which was soon run over by Communists.
Knowing that the Trump administration wants a permanent ceasefire after its forces withdraw, the Afghan Taliban are loath to any kind of ceasefire because it would curtail their power. The only reason they enjoy ungrudging respect across Afghanistan is because they have a monopoly over violence. After the US withdrawal, they would be looking to consolidate their gains. Already by some estimates, they control about 70 per cent area of Afghanistan. Political deal or not, they would seek to take over the rest of the country. This would include defeating their decades old enemy, the Northern Alliance, crushing the Afghan Army in battle, and pacifying the fast-emerging Islamic State of Khorasan. Laying down arms is not politically viable for the Taliban. If they do so, their fighters would desert them for the Islamic State.
Here’s where Pakistan comes in. Pakistan’s establishment might not be able to make the Taliban agree to a ceasefire, but they can certainly make them talk to the Ghani administration. Then from there, the United States in collaboration with Pakistan must ensure that a power-sharing formula between the Taliban and the Ghani government is agreed to. All this must be done before the upcoming Afghan presidential elections.
The first part of the withdrawal deal should lay out steps for the formation of a pre-election caretaker government which includes a broad coalition from all segments of the Afghan population, including the Northern Alliance. The ideal outcome after that would be for the Taliban to accept electoral democracy and contest the elections as a mainstream Islamist party, much like the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt does. From there, the United States should outline a plan were Afghan forces take on the Islamic State of Khorasan, which is an international terrorist organization and unlike the Taliban, has ambitions beyond the country. Obviously, the Taliban would be averse to taking dictation from the US government but as the famous saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
The US is playing on a weak footing because the Taliban know that they can easily outwait Americans. They have borne pressure when there were more than 200,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. Now, there are a measly 20,000. Here too, the United States should enlist Pakistan’s help, because since Pakistan is a part of this region and would hate to see any kind of instability in the region, it can coerce the Taliban to sit on the negotiating table with the Afghan government and agree to a power sharing deal.
If there’s a civil war in Afghanistan, it will not bode well for Pakistan not only in terms of economy but also for peace in the country. In case of civil war, there would be an onslaught of millions of new Afghan refugees into Pakistan who would create a tremendous burden on Pakistan’s economy and its socio-political fabric. Further, a plethora of new Islamist fighters in Afghanistan can easily cross over the border to Pakistan, creating terror and destruction in her cities too. Pakistan’s military leadership certainly does not want a repeat of latter part of the last decade when there was a new terrorist attack almost every single day.
The US and Pakistani interests clearly align when it comes to the Afghan exit game plan. Thus, the crux of the US strategy must be to appease Pakistan, listen to what its needs are and what its core interests in the region are. More money or aid will not solve the problem. It will further intensify the impression that the US looks at Pakistan as a client state, giving it alms whenever it wants to get something done.
Since Pakistan is chequered by its security paradigm vis-à-vis India and there has been an exacerbation in tensions on that front recently, the magic word is Kashmir. The US doesn’t even have to do much, merely support Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir on a public forum once or twice. This would annoy India a little but that’s about it. In return, the United States would get the exact face-saving formula that it’s looking for. If it ignores Pakistan on the other hand, Pakistan’s clients in Afghanistan can create hurdles in any end endgame which is agreed to, thereby compromising Trump’s image in front of the American electorate.