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US-TALIBAN TALKS: Where are they headed?

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AFGHANISTAN-ZABUL-MILITARY OPERATION by .
Afghan army soldiers take part in a military operation in Mizan district of Zabul province, Afghanistan, April 23, 2018. At least 16 Taliban militants were killed and four others injured after Afghan army waged an operation in restive southern province of Zabul, the defense ministry said Tuesday. (Xinhua/Sanaullah Seiam) (wtc)

Given President Trump’s earlier authority to the Pentagon to set the agenda in Afghanistan with more forces appearing to go nowhere, there has obviously been a re-think in the US strategy, both in terms of domestic US politics on handling Afghanistan and in realizing that using Pakistan as a conduit to negotiate with the Taliban have proved to be useless….writes Dr Sakariya Kareem

AFGHANISTAN-ZABUL-MILITARY OPERATION by .
Afghan army soldiers take part in a military operation in Mizan district of Zabul province, Afghanistan. (Xinhua/Sanaullah Seiam) (wtc)

Reports about US Assistant Secretary of State, Alice Wells meeting with representatives of the Taliban is the first sign that the US is serious about pursuing talks with the Afghan Taliban. For the Taliban, the primary aim is to get the US to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. Such a move of course would suit Pakistan hugely! What is intriguing is that Trump’s decision to allow his diplomats to talk directly with the Taliban came soon after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki! Wonder if there was some off the record conversation between the two Presidents on Afghanistan.

Writing in the magazine American Conservative (9 July 2018) George D O’Neill Jr asserted that “President Trump should propose a drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan in exchange for a drawdown of Russian troops in Syria (along with a pledge that America has no interest in reengaging in the Syrian Civil War). This would be consistent with Trump’s oft-stated observation that America’s wars (declared and undeclared) in the Middle East have been a waste”. If this did indeed happen, it makes perfect sense for President Trump to open direct negotiation with the Taliban.

Media reports indicate that US President Donald Trump had told his diplomats that he wanted establishment of direct talks with the Taliban. This led to a flurry of visits by US diplomats to Afghanistan including that of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Kabul and reported meetings between State Department/CIA officials in Doha, Washington and Kabul. Given President Trump’s earlier authority to the Pentagon to set the agenda in Afghanistan with more forces appearing to go nowhere, there has obviously been a re-think in the US strategy, both in terms of domestic US politics on handling Afghanistan and in realizing that using Pakistan as a conduit to negotiate with the Taliban have proved to be useless.

All this while, the US had been expecting that renewed military pressure on the Afghan Taliban would give President Ashraf Ghani the space to propose and pursue peace talks with the Taliban. While President Ghani has tried, the Taliban has made it clear from time to time, that it only wants direct talks with the US. At this point, it is worth recalling that President Ghani had offered the Taliban unconditional talks, but within the framework of the Afghan constitution. The Taliban has long argued that Islamic law (Shariah) should be imposed on Afghanistan.

WASHINGTON D.C., July 20, 2018 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Donald Trump makes a gesture during the Pledge to America's Workers event at the White House in Washington, D.C., the United States, on July 19, 2018. U.S. President Donald Trump hosted the Pledge to America's Workers event and signed an Executive Order that establishes a National Council for the American Worker. (Xinhua/Liu Jie/IANS) by .
U.S. President Donald Trump

In a sense, the direct US channel can dispense with the constitutional niceties as long as the discussion is focused on withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. In turn, the US will want the Taliban to negotiate other aspects of a peace deal with the Afghan government under President Ghani. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top US commander in Afghanistan, perhaps reflected this truism when he said that the “United States is not a substitute for the Afghan people or the Afghan government” in talks.

One could recall however that this is not the first time that the US has held direct talks with the Taliban. The Taliban’s Doha office was set up with direct US assistance and was presaged by direct talks between Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s Special Envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan and, several Taliban leaders. Most of these talks were held in Pakistan under the watchful eye of the Pakistan ISI, which created and nurtured the Afghan Taiban to fight the Soviet Union.

If past experience is any indication, this time around too things are not going to be any different. This is precisely because Pakistan has played spoiler! The other challenge is that the Taliban is today a factitious group that is difficult to talk to the group under one umbrella or one leader. To this Pakistan has always had the perfect answer, which is Pakistan will act as the honest broker with the Taliban. I think even the US realises that the Quetta Shura is controlled by the Pak ISI. Therefore, the US is trying now to bypass the ISI and its Directorate S, which has handled the Taliban.

While the US efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan by talking to the Taliban are commendable, one has to understand the motives behind this move. Clearly, the US would like the NUG under President Ghani to continue beyond next year, when Presidential elections are set to take place. Alternatively, the US will look for another Pashtun candidate to take Ghani’s place. This again is an arrangement that suits Pakistan.

Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. (File Photo: IANS)

The other fact that is notable is why is US legitimizing the Taliban, which is clearly a terrorist organisation. Strangely, the US has declared the Haqqani Network as a terrorist entity, but does not treat the Taliban with the same brush, when both the Haqqani’s and Taliban are one and the same, with the blessings of the Pak ISI. Therefore, it is important that while talks are held, the US should indicate their preference right in the beginning for a dialogue that takes into consideration the Afghan constitution. It need not be a pre-requisite but it needs to be said right up front.

What does the US hope to get from negotiating with the Taliban? A phased withdrawal, US continuance in the bases already identified under the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with former President Hamid Karzai and assurance that the Taliban will give up violence and participate in governance of Afghanistan. In 2014, reports suggested that President Hamid Karzai wanted to ‘hand over’ Helmand and Kunduz provinces to the Taliban in exchange for peace. This of course did not happen!

Actually, if the US is really interested in peace in Afghanistan, it should talk to all stakeholders, including the former members of the Northern Alliance. Talks with the Taliban are constrained by history and priorities of both sides. Most importantly, Pakistan can always cast a long shadow on such diplomatic efforts and it is imperative for the US to try and insulate the Taliban from Pakistan. Clearly an impossible task and asking for the moon! In this sense, the US is taking a long shot. What is intriguing is if this strategy direction is one proposed by Russia then it means it has a handle on the Taliban, or at least some sections of it. This makes it even more fascinating, for then the Trump-Putin meeting could carry more meaning that is being currently read into.