September 20, 2019
IPRI
34

Recent developments suggest that the scope of Pakistan-US relations has once again been rejuvenated, from President Trump’s behaviour to the massive reception that Imran Khan received in the United States. Bilateral relations between the two countries had been at the lowest over the last few years. Reconciliation from the American side is now evident like never before. Given Premier Khan’s calibre, opinion circles were always confident of how deftly he would handle everything. At least he would not read notes from a piece of paper. The American side too responded with grace. The slogan of ‘do more’ was also not heard this time.

Working towards a graceful exit from Afghanistan and a subsequent electoral victory, President Trump now seems to be desperate to reach a deal with the Taliban. There are chances that the US and President Trump especially might give away too much in their quest to reach a settlement. If the American exit is a success story, leaving Afghanistan in the hands of warring factions could hurt American ‘strategic interests’ in the region. The Taliban have signaled the possibility of intra-Afghan talks after the complete withdrawal of the US forces. What will be the fate of the Afghan government? They have not been involved in the negotiations by either side and this is rather strange.

There was a time when the Americans were power-mongers in the region and never gave ‘negotiations’ a thought. The Taliban had all the desire for talks. Now, times have changed and Taliban control has grown massively. According to some figures, Taliban control is almost 52 per cent of all of Afghanistan. The Taliban have also been handling the negotiations from a position of strength and authority.

Afghanistan and its people have been at war for the last four decades. The Taliban have now learned to live in perpetual chaos and, for them, a drawdown would ultimately bring Afghanistan back under them. After the Americans leave, and the issues of governance and conflict settlement have been attended to, there will be chaos in the country. It is for this very reason perhaps that the Taliban have not frowned once in the talks process, given the options, but other stakeholders have been treading very cautiously.

Afghanistan is important for Pakistan which has been active in chanting the mantra that a settlement of conflict must be Afghan-led and owned.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to the USA has placed a bigger responsibility on Pakistan’s shoulders. Pakistan has facilitated the Taliban to come to the table. Now that the US wants Pakistan to play a bigger role, there is news already circulating that a Taliban spokesperson is willing to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan. If the world, after a nod from the U.S., has agreed for peace in Afghanistan, there are spoilers around who are quite capable of throwing a spanner in the works. After all, they did make a mockery of peace in Afghanistan in the past.

While an Afghan-centric equation is considered, other issues, including the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan and the turbulent environment discouraging economic initiatives such as CPEC, TAPI and CASA-1000 need attention. The ISIS cannot extend its stay in Afghanistan in the presence of the Taliban. If there is peace in war-ravaged country and a genuine in-house government (with equitable representation) is put in place, improvement of its economic health would become a compulsion, given foreign aid and assistance in other forms.

The momentum of the American Presidential election campaign is also kicking in. The US is now roo far ahead in the U.S.-Taliban talks process to pull out and is optimistic about the outcome. The Taliban are negotiating with skill, good conduct and authority and their perseverance is bound to get them somewhere.

The article was originally published in South Asia Magazine (Sept 2019 Edition)

Link: http://southasia.com.pk/sa-0919/region-exit-for-peace.html

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy