“We are just strong enough never to lose and just weak enough never to win.” Those wise words are spoken by a fictitious Taliban leader (a Haqqani) who favors a peace deal with the Americans in the latest season of US TV show ‘Homeland’. But that remarkable assessment may well apply to both the US and the Taliban in real life. Nearly two decades of war seems to have exhausted all sides in this conflict.
The Doha Agreement, signed last weekend, is a significant milestone towards peace, albeit what lies ahead will be the real test of fragile goodwill between erstwhile enemies. Kudos to Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad for pulling off this breakthrough under a mercurial administration in DC! An Afghan-American who is fluent in local languages, “Zal” had the patience, understanding and charm to work things out.
Credit also goes to Pakistan for nudging the Taliban towards talking peace despite limited leverage. Some quarters will claim this accord as a vindication of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. What perhaps led to this was an apparent quid pro quo with the US in late 2018: in return for Pakistan’s peace efforts, US will remain neutral at FATF as well as encourage multilateral financiers during the former’s macroeconomic travails.
A deal has been signed, but to state “mission accomplished” and move on would be a bit of a stretch. On this march towards peace, the stakeholders are, at best, a quarter of the way yet. What has really taken place is that the US has announced a withdrawal timeline, in return for Taliban pledging to prevent miscreant groups from using Afghan soil to pose a threat to US and its allies. This all sounds more aspirational than concrete; and the rest of the peace process is dependent on those aspirations.
The “rest” is perhaps the real deal. Now comes the phase of “intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiation”. But it won’t be easy for Afghans to sit down face to face. The Afghan President has ruled out the immediate release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 of Afghan captives. This exchange, which has to take place by March 10 under the agreement, was supposed to create the goodwill among Afghans.
Even if prisoners are released, it isn’t clear whether the anti-Taliban stakeholders and factions will be able to unify for the sake of bringing peace. It also isn’t clear which international platform(s) – bilateral or multilateral – will broker these talks, or if the UN will play a meaningful role. And once intra-Afghan talks do commence, there will be serious things to talk about besides a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.”
For instance, what will be the make-up of an interim government? How will power-sharing be worked out at regional level? What will be the future of the Afghan National Army and other security forces? Is there a way to regulate or formalize private militias and warlord armies? Will Taliban agree on rights of women? Can they all agree on a constitutional framework that caters all ethnicities living in Afghanistan?
In essence, the looming quest for who will call the shots once the sheriff leaves town will kick a “substantive” peace deal down to 2021, which is the year when the complete US and allied troop withdrawal is expected to take place. This suits the Trump administration just fine. Fighting re-election this November, The Donald is now in a position to claim victory. He can boast of being the President who ended America’s longest war and brought the troops back home (some of them anyway).
It also helps Trump’s re-election cause that the troop withdrawal timeline is tailored such that this Saigon cannot fall in 2020 to invoke the painful imagery of Operation Frequent Wind. In short, Trump has his way, and the Taliban have also earned an air of international legitimacy. However, for ordinary Afghans who have braved over four decades of chaos, there’s still many a slip between the cup and the lip.