• Saleem Qamar Butt

Engagement of Taliban in UAE and Trump’s Announcement of Phased Withdrawal from Afghanistan

United States diplomats and Taliban representatives met in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, 17 December 2018 for talks facilitated by Pakistan on finding a negotiated settlement of the war in Afghanistan. The meeting in Abu Dhabi was also attended by officials from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Pakistan had arranged the meeting after receiving a request from US President Donald Trump for help in the peace process a fortnight ago. It was the third meeting between the Taliban and US officials since the appointment of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as US special envoy for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Their meeting last month continued for three days and current meeting is also likely to continue for the same period. It is believed that the latest meeting was convened outside Qatar to underscore Pakistan’s role in arranging it and at the same time allowing participation of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both of whom had last year cut diplomatic ties with Doha. Although Afghan Government is desperately trying to project through media that proximity talks with Taliban are underway at UAE and US is coordinating such dialogue, yet the Afghan government was not represented at Monday and Tuesday’s meetings because Taliban have stood firmly on not talking to the Afghan government, whom they call the puppet regime, and insisted on talking directly to the US. The Afghan government, however, held consultations with the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE a day before the talks with Taliban. Nevertheless, like all other countries, Kabul, despite not getting a seat at the talks, is seeing the process positively, terming it with usual malice as US brokered effort instead of Pakistan.


For Pakistan, it has taken a lot of sincere efforts to time and again bring Afghan Taliban horse to the water, which in the past was made to run away twice by announcing Mullah Umar’s death and second time killing Mullah Akhtar Mansoor at the eleventh hour that made the peace efforts go in waste and allowing more Pakistan bashing. Since American and Pakistan’s media including official statements are attaching a lot of hope with some breakthrough for bring back peace in Afghanistan after almost four decades, I will like to analyze the prospects of peace in Afghanistan in the light of some of my previous articles on the subject i.e Afghanistan: Historic Arena for Great Games, Perils of Privatising the War in Afghanistan and “Prospects of Peace in Afghanistan” published on Wednesday,19 September. However, I am constrained to repeat excerpts from one piece published on Tuesday 16 October 2018 with the title “Afghan Conundrum: What at best can Pakistan Do? Bring the Horse to the Water!”


“During the recent interaction between Pakistan Foreign Minister and US’ Secretary of State Pompeo, the wishes expressed by the US side were not different from what has consistently been demanded in the last over a decade. However, the tone this time was re-conciliatory due to multiple reasons but perhaps having seen the futility and pitfalls of applying maximum pressure on Pakistan was predominant explanation; besides diminutive effects created by exercising all other options by USA to find an amicable solution in Afghanistan. The fundamental raison d'être for 17 years long imbroglio is the strategic miscalculation that made US to believe that they could prevail in Afghanistan in a quick fix based on superior military, economic and technological might including available allied countries, but in vain.


Needless to say that Pakistan despite winning the War against terror on its own territory including against numerous proxies launched by hostile countries at enormous human, economic and above all socio-psycho cost, has remained a whipping boy for the US to cover up her strategic blunders that continued to multiply one after the other. Pakistan’s successes vis-à-vis US and allies’ failure has given them sense of envy, in addition bringing politicians, military commanders and intelligence community under tremendous pressure at home due to unbearable human and economic cost as if red faces alone weren’t enough____ memories of Vietnam getting refreshed every day. US establishment had been continually bluffing American people with false claims based on erroneous facts and figures as every year exposed by US Special Inspector General Report on Afghanistan.


It is simply baffling to see US and Allies unable to gain a favourable outcome in Afghanistan despite most sophisticated weapons, equipment, high tech intelligence and extremely elaborate military planning system put in place in the last over 17 years. In my opinion, some of the major flaws committed may include inflated and ever changing politico-military objectives, parallel covert designs, under-estimation of response by main regional rivals, concurrent US/ NATO involvement in invading Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, strategic regional primacy given to India, bashing and relegating tested old ally while at the same time attaching extremely unthinkable ambitious hopes with Pakistan, ignoring history of Afghanistan, false expectations from installed puppet Afghan Government, rampant corruption, neglecting real stake holder i.e. Taliban for a long time and last but not the least undermining guerrilla war potential of fiercely independent insurgent Taliban. The so called strategy of winning hearts and minds while simultaneously carrying out killings of Afghan Taliban and many innocent civilians simply added fuel to the fire. Therefore, the situation in Afghanistan is the product of a mix of so many contradictions in US policies and strategies applied, besides competing strategic interest of big regional players.


Pakistan being direct sufferer of instability in Afghanistan has been making very sincere efforts from the beginning to bring around peace, which in the face of above stated paradoxical factors did not see full realisation, becoming victim of intense propaganda campaign coupled with undue political, diplomatic and economic pressure. As a matter of fact, Pakistan has been subjected to 5th generation warfare, which is being contested with Lion’s Heart by the brave battle hardened Armed Forces and most resilient people of Pakistan. USA has tried almost all other options sans Pakistan to achieve her envisaged goals in Afghanistan but in vain. However, it is satisfying to see US finally adopting a re-conciliatory approach in the recent meetings but the success lies in not repeating the same old experiments and hoping to achieve different results. USA needs to appreciate that Pakistan can at best bring the horse to the water, but can’t force him to drink. Besides, while Pakistan puts in great efforts to approach Taliban militants for convincing them yet again for talks despite repeated subversion of previous efforts, US military and intelligence agencies must not do anything that make them berserk. Moreover, Indian Government hostage to its Maha-Bharat Hindutva ideology and spy master national security adviser Ajit Doval’s strategy must also recognise the futility of its covert war unleashed against state of Pakistan taking short sighted advantage of the ugly situation in Afghanistan; because had Pakistan not succeeded in defeating the international hordes of terrorists on its soil, the same monsters would be knocking on Indian doors.


The regional peace in Central Asia and South Asia will remain hostage to great power play in Afghanistan and Indian greed hidden in her Hindutva doctrine followed by BJP Government, which is being spread sugar coated through semi nude Indian movies, massive onslaught by Indian diasporas all over the world and crafty business deals. Pakistan may have to continue to fight on many fronts though; yet, Pakistan and USA do not have the option to part ways both for regional as well as for global peace and stability. Both countries need to jump over trivial affairs and think big to find a peaceful regional solution to Afghan puzzle.”


Above in view, the current Taliban engagement in UAE once again duly facilitated by Pakistan therefore must not result in giving over optimism at home and abroad as higher the hopes, greater are the disappointments….with obvious pitfalls and backlash. There are a lot of slips between the cup and lips when it comes to finding a durable solution to Afghan conundrum. Soon after the meeting with Taliban was over, Zalmay Khalilzad had a hurricane meetings with Pakistan’s COAS and Afghan president on 19th December that was followed by sudden announcement by President Trump on December 20, 2018 of complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria and 50% phased withdrawal of US/ NATO troops from Afghanistan….giving an impression of listening to the Taliban number one demand as well as paying heed to the recommendations by the regional countries, which in all probabilities was part of the US plan duly justified for a face saving. Nevertheless, Afghanistan, the regional countries and more so Pakistan needs to brace up to avoid facing repeat of 90s like fallout from Afghanistan. Moreover, immediate resignation by US Secretary Defence James Mattis (that may be followed up by few more) is indicative of fissures and disagreements within US Administration on the end state in Syria as well as in Afghanistan. Pakistan and all regional countries must also make sure that the withdrawal of US/ NATO troops does not result in Privatising the War in Afghanistan through Feinberg the owner of DynCorp International military contractors and Erik D. Prince who founded the security firm Black water Worldwide. Both had suggested the option of replacing the US military with private security contractors, which will have even greater destabilizing effects in the region.


As long as the major and real stakeholders in this imbroglio i.e. America, Afghan Taliban, and Afghan Government do not agree to compromise on their well known stances, demands and aspirations, and main players in the new Great Game do not reconcile, all efforts by Pakistan remain subject to a number of challenges. Moreover, regional proxies need to stop and all regional stakeholders need to sit on a round table to play a positive role while safeguarding their respective interests. Above all, Afghan Warlords, drug barons, smuggling mafias, installed government and warring factions need to stop exploiting the world and their neighbours and be sincere to their own country and suffering masses.


Saleem Qamar Butt, SI (M) is a retired senior Army officer with rich experience in Military & Intelligence Diplomacy and Strategic Analysis. (sqbutt61@gmail.com)