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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Afghanistan: peace remains elusive despite US drawdown announcement

“There’s many a slip between the cup and lip” ~ Aristotle

The sudden announcement on December 20, 2018, by President Trump of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in the next few months, essentially to the dismay of the US Department of Defence, is marked by the resignation of Secretary Defense General James Mattis, which either underscored the saying “Every exit is an entry somewhere else” or it might have simply meant for America “If you enter strong and you exit strong, and you’re going to be okay.” However, apparently under pressure from the US DoD and Langley, White House had to announce sooner than later that the drawdown from Afghanistan was being ‘re-evaluated’ as it might embolden Taliban, making reconciliation even harder. Although it may appear rather too early to write about “Afghanistan post US’ exit”, yet the intricacies involved and preparations needed to ward off potential devastating fallouts by the affected countries attach a sense of urgency for considering likely scenarios and reactions by each and every major and minor stakeholder. However, besides global rivals playing the new great game in Afghanistan, prospects of peace in Afghanistan remain largely dependent on three main actors which are the US, Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban.

Some American analysts believe that in deciding to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, President Trump is taking a political risk that George W. Bush and Barack Obama avoided after 9/11: being perceived as weak on terrorism. While Trump’s sudden announcement to commence a drawdown may have more to do with his pre-election promises to pull out from external wars to save money in order to consolidate internally under the rubric of America First; yet it has also given rise to many other speculations i.e. admission of defeat in Afghanistan, agreeing to Afghan Taliban’s demands, handing over of the Afghan mess to Pakistan along with some financial backbenchers like KSA, UAE and Qatar. And leaving the arena open for its old strategic rival Russia and now China, short circuiting India’s design to encircle Pakistan and contest China as US’ new strategic partner in the region, handing over the devastated war zone to regional players to settle on their own expenses and perils.

The third major actor in the Afghan conundrum are Afghan Taliban, who after the engagement by the US in UAE in mid December 2018, appear to have gained the visible upper hand, with US seemingly wilting under pressure and agreeing on some of their demands

However, Trump’s differences with his own handpicked senior administration who regularly continue to resign or are fired is indicative of the internal widening gulf that has cast a shadow on Trump’s presidency with even external ramifications. The second main actor in the Afghan quagmire is the incumbent Afghan Government itself that is visibly upset on Trump’s withdrawal decision as also expressed by Afghan security bosses. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on December 23, 2018 replaced two of the country’s top security chiefs with staunch anti-Taliban and anti-Pakistan officials, days after US President Donald Trump’s decision to slash troop numbers in the country. Amrullah Saleh and Asadullah Khaled, both former heads of the Afghan intelligence agency, have been appointed to the critical posts of interior minister and defence minister respectively. Thus reconciliation with the warring Afghan Taliban has become even trickier and may result in heightened militancy, that is bound to undermine Pakistan’s and China’s conciliatory efforts. Needless to mention, the already frail Afghan Government’s survival with or without presidential elections in second quarter of 2019 looks bleak.

The third major actor in the Afghan conundrum are Afghan Taliban, who after the engagement by the US in UAE in mid December 2018, appear to have gained the visible upper hand, with US seemingly wilting under pressure and agreeing on some of their demands. As a proof of that, during January 2019, Taliban refused to meet Afghan government’s representatives in KSA and also refused to meet special US representative Zalmay due to a disagreement regarding the swap over of prisoners and the ceasefire demand made by the US. With almost a 50 percent withdrawal of Us forces, Afghanistan is already under Taliban control and the public is largely disenchanted with the Afghan Government and unattractive Western promises, the US military drawdown will obviously result in a quick resurrection of Taliban who may not face much difficulty in defeating their new but relatively minor rival i.e. the  much trumpeted proxy called Islamic State and other foreign proxies operating from their soil.

Pakistan will be well advised to remember that regional peace in Central Asia and South Asia (CASA) will remain hostage to the great power play in Afghanistan which is duly exploited by India. China may have to play a more proactive role in coordination with Russia to safeguard its strategic interests vis-à-vis India as well to address their common concerns with respect to the smuggling of drugs, spread of extremism, influence of ETIM, IMU and Islamic State elements. Iran being another affected country because of both instability as well as the presence of its arch foe the US in Afghanistan, will not only be better served by enhancing its strategic cooperation with Pakistan, instead of allowing itself to be exploited by India;s business charm through Chabahar port and new road and railway ventures.  Turkey, KSA, UAE and Qatar are all expected to continue to play a supporting role to further the peace process instead of checkmating Iran to avoid another Syria like scenario. Pakistan may have to continue to fight on many fronts.

While the responsibility for success of the dialogue rests on the shoulder of the three main actors, it is opined that instead of just hosting delegation level talks, Pakistan should host the first summit for Peace in Afghanistan to let the ball roll which can then be followed by China and the other countries. The Afghan owned, Afghan led and all inclusive slogan for peace in Afghanistan, now needs to be updated and broadened to make it an all inclusive regional solution for sustainability and durable peace in Afghanistan and the region.

The writer is a retired Army officer with experience in military & intelligence diplomacy and is a consultant on strategic analysis for many newspapers, magazines and PTV.

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