America’s Special Representative for Afghan affairs, Zalmay Khalilzad has announced that a preliminary draft agreement between the Afghan Taliban and Washington has been reached. Although it is clear that nothing has been finalised as of yet, this week’s announcement is the most throughout to-date when it comes to understanding America’s position vis-a-vis the Taliban. Khalilzad said the following:
“Just finished a marathon round of talks with the Taliban in Doha. The conditions for peace have improved. It’s clear all sides want to end the war. Despite ups and downs, we kept things on track and made real strides. Peace requires agreement on four issues: counter-terrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue, and a comprehensive ceasefire. In January talks, we “agreed in principle” on these four elements. We’re now “agreed in draft” on the first two.
When the agreement in draft about a withdrawal timeline and effective counter-terrorism measures is finalized, the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government, will begin intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire.
My next step is discussions in Washington and consultations with other partners. We will meet again soon, and there is no final agreement until everything is agreed”.
Whilst Khalizad’s statement ping-pongs between clarity and State Department jargon, several things become clear upon reading the text.
First of all, the United States appears more serious about leaving Afghanistan than Syria. This is to say that the US appears to be on the verge of solidifying a timeline for withdrawal that is being agreed upon through cooperation with Afghanistan’s strongest indigenous military force, the Taliban.
Secondly, based on what Khalilzad said has been accomplished when contrasted with what he said has yet to be accomplished, he has (perhaps unintentionally) alluded to the fact that it is now easier for the US and Taliban to agree on a framework for the future than it is for the US and the Kabul regime to do so. This is the case because Khalilzad indicated that of the four goals that must be achieved to finalise a peace deal, the two that have been agreed upon at the highest level thus far, are those which only require cooperation between American officials and Taliban officials. Counter-terrorism assurances and troop withdrawal in this context means that the Taliban will commit themselves to fighting various terror groups (they are already fighting Daesh for example), whilst the Taliban will work with the US to assure an orderly withdrawal of American troops.
The second too principles, “intra-Afghan dialogue, and a comprehensive ceasefire”, require not only the consent and cooperation of the Taliban, but also that of the current Kabul regime, in order to be fulfilled. Therefore, without saying so directly, Khalizad has tacitly admitted that the US is further along in its agreements that only require discussions between American and Taliban officials than it is with discussions that involve American officials, the regime, the Taliban and other smaller factions.
This about face from the US should not surprise Afghanistan’s putative leader Ashraf Ghani. The US is infamous for being a friend one day and an enemy the next, when it comes to international relations. As Ghani remains a figurehead who even with US assistance cannot control a majority of Afghan territory, the US looks as though it is on the verge of dumping its bad investment in favour of working with a reformed Taliban that might actually be able to get things done in the country.
By working with a reformed Taliban rather than a de facto illegitimate, albeit UN recognised Ganhi regime, the US would be able to save both money and save the lives of US troops, whilst still ostensibly retaining the right to exploit some Afghan resources, whilst maintaining the presence of some American mercenaries to guard US economic interests in the country. The fact that this would happen under a government that leans heavily towards the Taliban, does in fact make it clear that both sides are willing to compromise and that for Taliban officials, removing an illegitimate government and removing uniformed US troops is now more important than a blanket extrication of American economic interests from the country. The comparative rapidity with which the US became a key economic partner of Vietnam after the Cold War is a clear model for the kind of US-Afghan relationship that could well be on the horizon. If indeed the US retains economic ties with a Taliban led Afghanistan, it would perhaps be the greatest geo-economic surprise since American Presidents have embraced a Vietnamese government whose founding father is the anti-American fighter Ho Chi Minh. That being said, whilst Afghanistan remains a more difficult place in which to do business than Vietnam was in the late 1970s, the prospect for sustained economic ties looks more and more likely in respect of the US and an Afghanistan led by a new generation of Taliban.
Furthermore, as the kind of peace process that Khalilzad has said is progressing in a positive manner, is that which Pakistan has advocated for over a decade, a proper peace in Afghanistan could help to ease Pakistan-US tensions at a time when the US is leaning heavily towards India, but still seeks to retain what is left of its partnership with Pakistan. In this sense, whilst the US is more comfortable playing zero-sum games in foreign affairs, when it comes to Pakistan, the US won’t be willing to see Islamabad fully exit from the US sphere of influence and as such, by settling Afghanistan’s crisis in a manner consistent with Pakistan’s long held views, this will eliminate at least one point of contention between Washington and Islamabad. As such, the US may well be trying to engage in some sort of balancing act in the region that leans towards India, but one which is not yet willing to see Pakistan fully alienated.
In this sense, the agreement of which Khalilzad has spoken could potentially be a major win-win. China, Russia and Pakistan are now on the same page when it comes to an all parties peace settlement and ceasefire that mandates an orderly withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Even Iran is largely in this camp now that the Taliban have assured Tehran that a new Taliban government will neither be anti-Iranian nor anti-Afghan Shi’a. For Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, it goes without saying that a stable Afghanistan is in their interests.
Finally, while India does not border Afghanistan, New Delhi has for decades sought strong relations with Kabul as part of a wider Indian desire to encircle Pakistan. This has been especially true since the war of 1971 between India and Pakistan. Just as it is increasingly likely that a new Taliban government will work with some US business firms after a formal US troop withdrawal, the same is true of Indian firms. The difference is that without US troops or those from the current regime there to protect Indian assets, India might find that investing in Afghanistan is more effort than it is wroth. In many ways, some in India are already reaching this conclusion.
In this sense, while India’s plans to encircle Pakistan may be on the verge of being thwarted, for all other parties involved, including the US and Taliban, this new reality is increasingly looking like a win-win conclusion to a war that should have never been fought in the first place. Now that American and Taliban officials are shaking hands and making agreements, many will begin to question the wisdom of a war which began in 2001 for the stated purpose of removing the Taliban from power…only to see the US help to re-legitimise the Taliban eight years later.