Making war is easy, finding peace is hard; and, all wars are fought to find peace. There isn’t a bigger conundrum than what faces Afghans, the Taliban or America. They just can’t coin peace from a war of four decades. Not their fault. Their known world is being asked to turn over. What lies on the other side fills them with apprehension. Better to keep with what is known.
Ashraf Ghani found two things wrong with the proposed peace treaty between the US and the Taliban: that it gave away too much and limited his own space for negotiation, and that his own political future was at stake if the presidential elections were postponed beyond the planned date of September. He dithered, squirmed, and finally blasted the deal as a sell-out. That reinvigorated the base of the naysayers in Kabul and in Washington isolating the American president and a small coterie of his supporters who wanted out, closing the chapter on America’s Afghan (mis)adventure.
That ended Trump’s made-for-media crowning of his statesman(esque) moment of bringing peace to a region and pulling out American troops saving his losses and gaining a major political victory in an election year. The hawks in his establishment denied him the moment and he summarily dismissed John Bolton, the loudest among them who instead advocated to keep the war going. He also wanted it to be expanded into Iran.
The cancellation/postponement of a peace deal which Zalmay Khalilzad had worked on so assiduously in completion of the task assigned to him by the US president has critically regressed the region further sustaining conflict and deprivation. It still bleeds the US treasury some, which Trump wants to stem but the bigger losers are the Afghans and their adjoining regions including Pakistan. There are marginal gainers by implication: India, which can still revel in the melee dirtying her hands against Pakistan, and Iran, which will be happy the US remains distracted. The bigger question though is: does such a failure to realize peace restrict America’s strategic choices? Morality aside, it doesn’t. The US can still walk away whenever it wants as it did in 1989. Unless another front opens – in Iran.
That should in a way reflect US’s declining interest in Afghanistan, if not the region. The ongoing political primary season in American politics for next year’s presidential elections has all Democratic hopefuls sounding an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan as their primary act. President Trump too made an election promise to cease America’s unnecessary wars. He surged a bit in Syria and then withdrew letting Turkey, Iran and Russia clean the mess, or embroil in it further. In Afghanistan he wants out to buoy his own political purpose.
Afghanistan is not central to a common American and the majority wants out. Here, it is the other way round. Most obsess about America for their respective purpose. The Kabul regime needs the US to keep in power; Kabul’s social economy dwells on American handouts. Power centres within the Afghan government find greater relevance because of American presence. India needs it to remain in Afghanistan so that conflict persists and within it India can find its space to sustain malice against Pakistan. Iran is happier with the US occupied elsewhere as well as creates an opportunity for it to meddle per its needs. Both Russia and China don’t mind the US bleeding in Afghanistan. Taliban are the only exception who want them out.
Pakistan is in a dilemma. If the US goes it is open season for the rest in Afghanistan which includes influences such as the IS and some franchised options of the larger militant entities. They have thrived in a war economy and they will look forward to burgeoning in one. Yet it is only in the US leaving that the current phase of conflict in Afghanistan will conclude, engendering the next which is certain to follow –only deadlier and far more expanded. The warlords and factional interests make the mix far more toxic. Afghanistan may burn itself to ashes before it can rise again. The US leaving can only hasten that phase. A paradox of survival.
That wouldn’t help Pakistan any bit, it will rather enhance the challenge of keeping the western border sanitized. It might see another refugee influx. If the US stays on, which incidentally is Pakistan’s declared policy, there will always be a chimera of some control over limiting the freedom of action of many. But that is living on American largesse which has become the norm. It will soon be time to face up to the realities without external control. What may save the region from another inferno may then be a controlled transition from the current phase to the next limiting conflict and resolving a way out; but the US isn’t staying for that edition.
Is it then in the pale of the SCO and those in the neighbourhood to step up to the plate? How might that happen? The US will need to move out for others to begin that role. Trump is not an ideologue; more a Republican by convenience. He employs bluster to cow others down and win his preferred deals. But the Boltons and the Brennans in Washington have had an urge to go out and destroy the world to establish American singularity. That the peace process met its demise, even if transitory, means regressive forces have prevailed. The US will be out of Afghanistan sooner or later but what will stay won’t be pretty.
The Taliban in their September 7 attack hit a compound housing American contractors, those that will remain to mind the stable. The Taliban had undertaken in the now-cancelled peace treaty to deny space to any inimical group exercising terror from Afghan soil. The US may have kept a lingering hope of pitting the Taliban in their next fight against the likes of IS. This would have wilted both as is the case in Syria. For the moment though it is again US vs the Taliban. It needn’t have been so. Afghans and the region deserve peace.
To depend merely on the Taliban to contend with competing groups like Daesh may not be sufficient; Pakistan may have to undertake responsibility larger than envisaged alongside challenges on the eastern border. This will need an innovative application across the military spectrum to retain balance. Infantry-heavy operations alone will cause a serious division of effort which must be strategically denied. Operationally that shall remain our gravest challenge. It is here that some ingenuity will be needed.