Despite the long, robust national and international debate about U.S. policy, Afghanistan’s future after 2014 appears increasingly uncertain. While the recent agreement on the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership is a significant breakthrough, the agreement is reportedly more symbolic than substantive. It is now clear that setting 2014 as a target date for the end of U.S. combat operations was not only an unrealistic deadline but also an act of significant strategic ineptness by the United States, one that provided the Taliban and various affiliated groups the opportunity to plan around declared American intentions. The timeline further reduces U.S. leverage on the Taliban to lay down their weapons.
Washington appears to have placed its hopes on a strategy of successful peace talks with the Taliban and the transfer of authority to the Afghan National Security Forces to maintain security beyond 2014. But neither process is proceeding smoothly. While there is much talk about talks, the peace process has been slow-moving, has stalled time and again, and has not yielded anything significant. Despite calls by the U.S. and Afghan governments for help in gaining access to the Taliban leadership in its territory, Pakistan has so far refused to cooperate. The Taliban leadership too has shown no sincere desire to remain involved in negotiations initiated by the U.S. in Qatar. They have so far refused to negotiate with the “stooge” Afghan government, describing it as “pointless,” and have recently suspended all talks with the U.S. The readiness of the Afghan police and Army is an even greater concern. Despite the security forces’ growing numbers, there are serious doubts about how well they have been trained and equipped. Fears also persist that Afghan security forces could disintegrate along ethnic lines, possibly resulting in a civil war reminiscent of the 1990s, if the Afghan central government does not hold its ground post-2014.
In the run-up to next month’s NATO summit in Chicago, it’s important to start weighing some key contingencies in the event that the transition and talks fail. If the U.S. is serious about getting out of Afghanistan in two years’ time, a course correction is required and it is critical that one of two new approaches is considered and employed.
First, if it wishes to keep talking with the Taliban using Qatar as an intermediary, the U.S. has to take more risks to accelerate the peace process and negotiate a timely and acceptable political settlement. This could involve releasing some former Taliban leaders from the prison at Guantánamo Bay, transferring Taliban detainees in Bagram and Parwan to Afghan control, pressuring Pakistan to allow the families of reconcilable Taliban members to return to Afghanistan, allowing some members of the Taliban leadership to travel, and offering reconcilable Taliban fighters some form of immunity and protection—as well as the possibility of employment and housing—in return for laying down their weapons.
This approach should not be seen as an appeasement policy. Rather, these steps will constitute important gestures of goodwill for the Taliban to reduce violence and lay down their weapons, and it would help immeasurably if such confidence-building measures are articulated at the Chicago summit. Such an approach may require more time, but will address some problems that have stalled the possibility of reaching a political settlement. The downside to this course, notwithstanding its potential success, is that if Pakistan isn’t happy with the outcome, it has the power to veto or spoil any negotiated peace deal. Even if the Taliban leadership—the so-called Quetta Shura—were to break with Pakistan, the country can still employ the Haqqani Network, which has a major presence in eastern Afghanistan. In the lead-up to U.S. presidential elections, the optics of concessions to the Taliban will also understandably be unappealing to the White House.
If this strategy is deemed too risky or politically unacceptable, the second option for the U.S. is to stop investing in the Qatar process, and cease all direct talks with the Taliban. Instead, the U.S. must engage in direct and structured negotiations with Pakistan, specifically with the leadership of its military and the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). Pakistan’s intransigent role in the Afghan peace talks is often downplayed or forgotten, but the country is the key regional powerbroker and host to the Taliban leadership and other criminal elements with a direct hand in Afghanistan’s stability. It is often joked that there are more Taliban in ISI headquarters than there are in Afghanistan, so the U.S. must engage in particular with the “Taliban” in Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus. The U.S. and Afghan governments should initiate these talks with lead responsibility given to a thoroughly restructured Afghanistan High Peace Council (HPC), one that is representative of all ethnic and opposition groups.
This track, too, has many challenges. One is the lack of political support and consensus within Afghanistan. Some of the blame for this goes to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has failed to forge a national consensus around a political settlement. For this reason, the Afghan government must also initiate a separate set of negotiations on the margins of talks with Pakistan with its own domestic opposition groups, specifically with members of the erstwhile Northern Alliance. The role and engagement of the Afghan opposition groups is central to any successful peace talks and lasting political deal. Before the security transition is completed, it would help immensely if the Karzai government forges a consensus in Afghanistan around a political settlement, preferably through a Loya Jirga.
In a similar vein, Pakistan’s role in any such peace talks remains highly questionable. As a major beneficiary of the Afghan war, Pakistan sees very few material incentives in a politically stable Afghanistan. Pakistan’s military elites believe the U.S. is doomed to fail in Afghanistan and that its own Afghan proxies are on the verge of once again ruling the country, which may be one of the reasons for their refusals to cooperate in peace talks. In a way, Pakistan is preparing for a post-American Afghanistan. Unless there is a fundamental strategic rethink within Pakistan’s military that the costs of their subversive agenda in Afghanistan outweigh the benefits, the country’s willingness to cooperate in a successful Afghan political settlement will be questionable at best. Direct talks with Pakistan will require the U.S. to put greater diplomatic pressure on the country in an effort to reap rapid results. However, Washington fears that applying too much pressure on Pakistan will weaken its civilian government, result in a huge diplomatic rift, contribute to anti-Americanism, and ultimately breed more militarism. The U.S. also needs Pakistani cooperation on logistics and counterterrorism. And finally, Pakistan’s demands concerning the role of the Taliban and the presence of India in the region may prove fundamentally incompatible with the American and Afghan goals of a stable, unified, democratic, and pluralistic Afghanistan.
While securing Pakistan’s sincere support for the peace talks is crucial, there appears to be very little evidence and recognition of the importance of the situation for other regional stakeholders, including Iran. While Iran’s role in Afghanistan may appear more constructive than Pakistan’s on many counts, the country views Afghanistan a part of a broader strategic equation. Iran seeks a strategically weak Afghanistan by betting on and investing in both insurgent elements and the Northern Alliance, its long-term ally. Other regional actors, such as India, China, and Russia, fear that any hasty international troop withdrawal will once again plunge Afghanistan into a situation reminiscent of the 1990s, which will have severe security implications for themselves and the region. With such regional dynamics and divergent sets of interests, the prospects of any “sincere” regional support for peace negotiations remain slim.
After more than a decade of costly war and sacrifices in blood and treasure by both Afghans and Americans, the United States must recognize that a negotiated political settlement with the Taliban is the only way forward in Afghanistan. The Obama administration needs to seriously put its weight behind accelerating the peace talks. This necessitates either engendering greater trust and confidence with the Taliban or talking directly to Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments. Given the current status of the Afghan peace talks and its uncertain future, striking a political deal or a compromise of some sort with Pakistan seems the only attractive solution. While it is frustrating to see the future of Afghanistan in Pakistan’s hands, it may be the only way for Washington and Kabul to finally put an end to the decade-long conflict.