Forty years after the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan unleashed conflict, confrontation and internecine warfare both within Afghanistan and the region, there is finally a glimmer of hope since the first steps towards some of sort of peaceful settlement have been taken.
After 9 rounds of talks between the United States and the Afghan Taliban over the last one year, both sides have exuded cautious optimism that they are on the threshold of a peace agreement.
Contours of this peace agreement would have a 3-pronged objective:
- cessation of fighting between the United States troops and Afghan Taliban;
- a guarantee from the Afghan Taliban that territory in Afghanistan would not be used by any terrorist group, notably AlQaeda and the ISIS, to target or damage United States interests;
- a phased withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan (out of a total strength of 14000, at least 5600 will be withdrawn).
The most important aspect which has not been formally stated in the agreement is the American motivation and the speedy and timing of efforts by Washington to clinch what is evidently a piecemeal peace accord. The savvy politician that Donald Trump is has realised that his chances of being reelected as President of the United States would get a considerable boost were he to claim that he has ended the longest war in American history. In other words, he is banking on Pakistan to deliver a peace process that will clinch this accord with the Afghan Taliban.
It was thus no accident that when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan went to Washington and meet President Trump in the White House on July 26, Trump surprised him with an offer of mediation on Kashmir which is the core cause of conflict between India and Pakistan over the past 7 decades. This was obviously his way of offering an informal quid pro quo on Pakistan’s role in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table with the United States, an effort that finally seems to be succeeding.
An agreement between the Afghan Taliban and the United States would only resolve one part of the Afghan jigsaw puzzle. There is the issue of the intra-Afghan dialogue negotiations between the Government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Afghan Taliban since the latter question the former’s legitimacy and then there is the question of international and regional guarantors for the Afghan peace process, primarily, the United States and Russia plus the 6 neighbours of Afghanistan which include Pakistan, Iran, China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It is thus not surprising that President Trump reversed himself at the G7 summit in France last month when he said that he was opposed to regime change in Iran and he expressed willingness to meet his Iranian counterpart President Rouhani, indirectly seeking softening in Tehran to ensure Iranian backing on Afghanistan.
On intra-Afghan dialogue, efforts are afoot by Norway to host this historic meeting in Oslo, which has been an important centre in the past for the Middle East talks between Palestinians and Israelis. Why is there a glimmer of hope this time around that peace could be achieved in Afghanistan? Three factors are noteworthy. First, there is a unique international consensus for peace in Afghanistan with China, United States and Russia plus Pakistan and Iran being on the same page on seeking peace in Afghanistan shedding aside their bilateral differences with the United States. An important motivation is the fear of ISIS becoming a threat to the stability of the region as well as the Central Asian Republics. Many analysts and policy makers fear that after the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, they may move to a ‘more conducive’ location like Afghanistan.
Second, President Trump’s motivations are driven primarily by electoral politics and even during the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, Trump had made known his-opposition to the Afghan war and he said that if he were to be elected, he would withdraw American troops from Afghanistan. In the initial period of his presidency, the American security establishment prevailed over Trump and he was saddled with the tried, tested and failed strategy in Afghanistan seeking a military surge in an unwinnable war without end. Now that the American elections are in the offing, President Trump has prevailed because he has linked his reelection with peace in Afghanistan which would be his only notable diplomatic triumph which he could ‘sell’ to the American people, having failed with North Korea and the Palestine peace process.
Third, there is the factor of Pakistan which is pivotal to peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan already has made a paradigm shift in its policies and priorities being the only Muslim state to have won an inland war against terrorism. 75,000 Pakistani soldiers and civilians, men, women and children lost their lives in this battle. And Islamabad feels that peace, security and stability in Pakistan is inextricably intertwined with peace, security and stability in Afghanistan.
Hence, the compulsion to seek peace in Afghanistan that will stabilize what is already a very volatile region, more so after the Indian government’s actions on Kashmir on August 5 which have destabilized the region and raised tensions on Pakistan’s Eastern border with India. Hence, peace on Pakistan’s Western border with Afghanistan will be a welcome relief both strategically and from the security point of view, ending what would have become a 2-front situation. If all goes well, before 18th Anniversary of 9/11, an historic peace accord between Afghanistan and the United States would have been inked, ending a troubled saga of American history and military engagement in a conflict that serves as a reminder that military might and arrogance of power have no place in the 21st Century.