The announcement from the US top negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad that the US and Taliban have agreed to a draft agreement to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan raises hopes of a sustainable peace in the region but at the same time raises some vital questions that, if unanswered, could leave mainland US and west more vulnerable to terrorism and would have the potential to send the entire region into a new conflict and chaos.
First the optimism. The entire peace agreement hinges on two pivots. One, US troops withdrawal and two, guarantees from Taliban that Afghan soil would not be used by them or any other organisation for launching terrorist attacks on the US or any other country. At the moment, Taliban insist that US announces schedule for withdrawal and then they would finalise the details of the peace settlement with Afghan government, the trickier part of the deal. The US is insisting on Taliban having a final agreement with Afghan government while they are there and watch the process. This hurdle too doesn’t seem formidable and would be resolved soon. The US would obviously like to watch the ceasefire before it starts the march.
The major reason for optimism that the deal could hold is why the negotiations are being held in the first place and why the first draft was agreed so quickly. There is absolutely no appetite left for the sponsors and backers of this war to continue to finance their proxies. Pakistan looks ready to look inward to save itself from economic collapse and international isolation. Saudis and UAE role in the region is being redefined and trimmed as both Washington and Riyadh don’t have an endless supply of resources in their possession and economic realities at home and at global stage are pressing for a change in geo-strategic thinking. The reasons for change in the US Middle East policy has got something to do with its energy policy but the geo-strategic reasons remain the same. As this is the place where China’s expansionism, Iranian aspirations and US naval presence meet. So militarily, one can bet the US is not going anywhere from Indian ocean and Persian Gulf though the set of allies and the future course of action might change.
Back to Afghanistan. In the absence of money and weapons from their sponsors Taliban at best could hope for a stalemate but their dream of capturing Kabul and sustaining the control look impossible to achieve. On the other hand Afghan government doesn’t seem to be taking charge of entire country not in short-term and not in long-term future. The ground realities compel both sides to talk and get a favourable deal. Now more than the Taliban a deal must satisfy the regional sponsors of war who could guarantee the lasting peace by not activating their proxies again. The main sponsors Pakistan and Saudia are happy to see guns go silent mainly due to economic reasons. China would be happy to have a peaceful corridor, or as she hopes, to Gwadar port. Iran is too embroiled in financial struggles after sanctions and Russia would be happy to have a hand in new Afghan dispensation after the US leaves.
Now let’s have a look at the scenario if things don’t go as intended. In this case one or two sponsors can use this peace agreement as a waiting period and once the forces leave could start a spiral of chaos to get its proxy in Kabul. It would mean back to square one for the US and the West and also for the region. In this scenario again there will be no winners – not even the backers of proxies not the US. The recent US intelligence assessment points strongly to this scenario playing out again. And a former CIA counter-terrorism chief and a respected voice on Afghanistan Bruce Reidel of Brookings Institute says that chances for this scenario ‘are significant.’
Now the question is has the US hedged enough against these potent possibilities. Apparently not. But the best way forward would be to withdraw the field formations but leave the counter-terrorism apparatus in place and that includes drones and assets on ground. And then it would need some forces to protect the US installations and infrastructure. The Syrian model of working with Afghan forces in role of intelligence gathering and advice could be a good bet if things threaten to spiral out of hand. Also it’s not only Taliban anymore, ISIS along with several other splinters would be encouraged to play ball when the US leaves. Here the keeping sponsors of the agreement including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia could keep the lid on and keep things manageable. Another important factor would be when this Taliban army is neutralised by a peace deal what is the guarantee that a new breed in near future start a new Jihad again finding new sponsors let’s say China. In this scenario keeping Pakistan and Saudis neutralised and keeping Iranians at bay would help. History can’t be clearer on this – Afghan wars may be fought in Afghanistan but search peace beyond the Afghan boundaries, if one has to. –