Save the deal

BR Research September 12, 2019

The abrupt suspension of Afghan peace talks has surprised many. Folks are wondering whether the “deal in principle” can even be salvaged. After all, what had taken Zalmay Khalilzad nearly a year to weave was unraveled by a couple of Trump tweets last weekend. The Afghan people fear an increase in violence after Trump declared talks as dead. But there is still likelihood that talks may resume sooner than later.

Firstly, the American establishment still looks hopeful. When Mike Pompeo, the influential US Secretary of State, appeared on several Sunday morning shows, his usual bombast was missing. On several occasions, Pompeo touted the deal’s main advantages of the Taliban agreeing to renounce Al Qaeda and not letting Afghan soil to be used against American interests. He seemed to leave the door open for negotiations when he made the case for “reduction in violence”, and not for a complete ceasefire.

Secondly, hawks in the US have just lost their main champion. John Bolton, the combative US National Security Advisor, has been sacked by Trump (via Twitter). One of the architects of the 2003 Iraq invasion, Bolton was working behind the scenes to sow doubts about the Afghan peace negotiations. Trump revoked that license for dissent couple of days back amid charges that Bolton was leaking to the press.

Thirdly, Trump looks too eager to fulfill his campaign pledge of bringing boys back home from America’s longest war. The impatience is obvious – the preliminary deal was designed to achieve a full US troop pullout just in time for the presidential election scheduled on November 3, 2020. The enthusiasm was also given away by the showmanship that Trump tried to pull at the botched Camp David summit.

Fourthly, it also suits the Taliban to return to the table. These talks have proved their desire for international legitimacy. Trump is right in asking, “How many more decades are they willing to fight?” Taliban may be willing to fight, but fighting season is about to end as winters approach. With that leverage gone, their best hope of staving off the upcoming Afghan presidential elections is to rejoin the talks.

And lastly, Pakistan, which had played a key role in getting peace process started last fall, may find itself under increasing American pressure to help resume talks. This comes at an inopportune time, for Pakistan was leaning on the US to go easy in the final FATF review next month. Given such considerations, Pakistan will feel the need to pull out all the stops to get some kind of dialogue going again.

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