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A complicated Pak-Afghan scenario Bharat Shakti 03 Mar 2021
The US National Security Advisor, Jack Sullivan, spoke to his Afghan counterpart, Hamdullah Mohib, and stated that the US would support the peace process in an effort to achieve ‘a durable and just political settlement and permanent ceasefire.’ He also added that the US will review the peace deal reached with the Taliban under the Trump administration. National Security Council Spokesperson, Emily Horne, stated that the review will include assessing ‘whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders.’
The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul and reiterated the same aspect. In his confirmation hearing, Blinken had stated, ‘We want to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism, which is what brought us there in the first place.’ He, however, asked Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan under the Trump administration, to continue in his assignment till May. While the US has good intentions, the retention of Khalilzad is an error as he was responsible for the mess which continues unabated in the country and gives Pak the opportunity to exploit the situation.
SM Qureshi, the Pakistan foreign minister urged the Biden administration, in an interview with Al Jazeera, to ‘persevere with the Afghan peace deal which was signed in Doha between the United States and Taliban last year and not reverse things.’ Simultaneously, a senior NATO official stated, ‘There will be no full withdrawal by allies by the end of April. Conditions have not been met.’ There are an estimated 10,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, in addition to 2,500 of the US.
President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman stated, ‘We have a partnership against joint threats with NATO. Our campaign is also a joint one, and any decision will be taken after evaluating the threat jointly too.’ These multitude of comments have raised doubts on the status of current talks and the agreement signed last year. As per the agreement all international troops were to withdraw prior to May 2021 in return for the Taliban fulfilling security guarantees. It is confirmed that this will not happen.
Many in US strategic circles view the Afghan deal as a sell-out to the Taliban. Khalilzad brokered the deal without keeping the Afghan government in confidence and solely aiming to fulfil Trump’s poll promise of withdrawing US troops from the country. He pressured the Afghan government to release Taliban prisoners, with almost nothing from the Taliban in return, resulting in Ghani losing his leverage over the Taliban.
The Taliban have not delivered on any of the three aspects where it was supposed to. There has been no reduction in violence, nor has the Taliban cut its ties with other terrorist groups nor has it negotiated with the Afghan government in earnest. The Taliban believed that they had only agreed to discuss reduction in violence, an aspect which has never seen the light of day.
Pakistan, which claims to have facilitated the deal, has supported the Taliban in openly flouting the agreement. Apart from convincing the Taliban to sit on the table with the Afghan government it has refused to act. The standard excuse of Pakistan is that it does not possess the power to push the Taliban to deliver.
The visit in Jan by Taliban members of the negotiating team to Pakistan had photographs of them visiting training camps of where Taliban fighters were being trained and hospitals where injured Taliban fighters were being treated. This indicated that Pakistan is providing the Taliban with recruits, training facilities, weapons, medical cover and funds and is openly projecting this image to the world.
None of these visits was criticized by Khalilzad, displaying that the US was willing to let Pakistan continue supporting violence in Afghanistan. The Taliban negotiating team in Qatar has stated, on multiple occasions, that their discussions with the Afghan government will be based on guidelines from their leadership based in Pakistan (implying the ISI). The accepted name for the Taliban leadership is the Quetta Shura, implying that they are housed and protected in Quetta. No wonder the Afghan government has been accusing Pakistan of being behind all recent attacks and blasts in the country. Tensions between Pak and Afghanistan are on the rise.
Pakistan had hoped that the US brokered deal would bring the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, opening doors for it and China to exploit the country. It had hoped that this action would enable them to shift focus on Kashmir or reignite the Khalistan bogey. The desperation displayed by Khalilzad to push through the Doha agreement provided Pakistan with legitimacy to support terrorist groups against all its neighbours. It was only the FATF which has placed spokes on Pakistan’s strategy of employing terrorism to further its foreign policies.
SM Qureshi has repeatedly stated that the road to Afghanistan is through Kashmir, hoping to bring the US into the Kashmir issue. The US has never fallen for this as it knows India would never accept any interference on Kashmir. India is a far closer ally to the US than Pak will ever be. The reality is that the road to peace in Afghanistan is through Pakistan.
Pak has its own worries in Afghanistan. The first is that Indian involvement in Afghanistan’s development is increasing. This has led to increased domestic support for India and anger against Pak. It would desire this to reverse. Secondly, Pak sought to use its leverage in Afghanistan to seek global intervention on Kashmir, which has failed. Thirdly, Pak fears that if it enhances pressure on the Taliban, it could turn its guns inwards against Pak, adding to growing internal security issues. Finally, there are senior elements within the Pak army who sympathize with the Taliban, who would resist any such decision.
The US has options which it must consider for enforcing peace in Afghanistan and compel Pak to push the Taliban towards serious talks. The first option is blackmail Pak by employing the FATF card, threatening to continue keeping them in the Grey List or even pushing it onto the Blacklist if it does not force the Taliban to act. This is currently ongoing as despite Pak having implemented majority of the conditions, it continues to languish in the Grey List. It could also push international funding agencies into exploiting FATF rules to slow down Pak loans. In case, the Taliban acts, then it could be freed from FATF pressures.
The second is threatening to declare it a terrorist state. Pak must realise that its importance to the US and the West remains as long as these are deployed in Afghanistan. The third is threatening to pull out without a peace deal. In case the US and NATO pull out from Afghanistan, a civil war would break out and Pak would also have no leverage left with the West. Further, the civil war would push additional millions of refugees into Pak adding to instability and economic ruin.
In no case can Pak handle two hot borders, India and Afghanistan, as also a deteriorating internal security environment. The Baluch insurgency is rising, and the Chinese are adding pressure on Pak to enhance deployment in Baluchistan to protect CPEC projects. Increasing pressure on the Taliban to move faster in talks would lead to enhanced TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) attacks, backed by the Taliban in its Eastern provinces. The support to the TTP by the Haqqani network is a reality.
Thus, Pak is caught between the frying pan and the fire. A possibility of this dangerous scenario emerging has pushed Pak to cool one border, India, instigation of enhancing tensions with whom, remains in its hands. Thus, the willingness to agree to a ceasefire along the LoC.
The current US administration must revisit the Khalilzad agreement. It cannot let the Taliban, backed by a hungry Pakistan, on the bidding of China, ruin and exploit a nation, which has changed in culture and embraced democracy. The Taliban must know that the country will no longer be given to them on a platter. They could form a part of governance and NOT be rulers of the nation. This message must go to them and their supporters in Pakistan.
Simultaneously, Pak must be pushed to act. If need be, the George Bush dictum of post 2001, ‘with us or against us,’ must be reapplied. Pak has to choose which side to support. It must no longer be permitted to play both sides, US and the Taliban. It has to act. For India, its investment in Afghanistan and support to the Ashraf government and intra Afghan talks must continue. Despite any Pak claims, India will remain a major player in the region.