Afghan endgame enters the home stretch

Afghans celebrating the US-Taliban agreement of 29th February 2020, Jalalabad, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan

In an extraordinary statement titled On the Political Impasse in Afghanistan, Washington has admitted the failure of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s mission to Kabul on Monday to heal the political rift among Afghan politicians and to urge them to form an inclusive government so as to implement the Doha pact of February 29. 

In exceptionally strong words, Washington flagged its disappointment over the political rift between the factions led by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah respectively, which has “harmed U.S.-Afghan relations and, sadly, dishonours those Afghan, Americans, and Coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure” in the 18-year old war. 

No sooner than the failure of Pompeo’s mission became clear, the state apartment disclosed that the Trump administration is cutting back its aid to the Afghan government — “a responsible adjustment to our spending in Afghanistan” by $1 billion immediately and another $1 billion next year — and will also “initiate a review of all of our programs and projects to identify additional reductions, and reconsider our pledges to future donor conferences for Afghanistan.” A calibrated Plan B with President Trump’s approval is unfolding, for sure.

Importantly, the state department statement added ominously, “We have made clear to the (Kabul) leadership that we will not back security operations that are politically motivated, nor support political leaders who order such operations those who advocate for or support parallel government.” 

The reference is unmistakably to the the troika of hardliners surrounding Ghani, comprising “Vice-President” Amrullah Saleh, NSA Hamdullah Mohib and Defence Minister Asadullah Khalid. 

However, the state department statement leaves the door open to “revisit the reviews initiated”, provided the Afghan leaders “choose to form an inclusive government that can provide security and participate in the peace process.” 

The alacrity with which this statement has come implies that President Trump directed Pompeo to convey to the Kabul elite that his patience has run out and to reiterate that no matter the shenanigans of Afghan politicians, “We are proceeding with the conditions-based withdrawal of our forces in accordance with the U.S.-Taliban agreement.” 

This is the nearest Trump has come to threaten that if push comes to shove, he may unilaterally end the war and wash his hands off. 

Evidently, Washington is calling Ghani’s bluff who bragged recently that Kabul has the necessary resources to carry on for at last two years even without any US assistance, signalling his grit to dissociate from the US’ peace talks with the Taliban. 

On its part, Washington has put Ghani on notice that if the game plan of the hardliners in his circle is to precipitate security situations with a view to drag the US military into violent confrontations with the Taliban and thereby destroy the understanding forged painstakingly through the negotiations in Doha during the past year and more, that won’t happen. 

Equally, Washington has distanced itself from the political rift between Ghani and Abdullah by making it clear that it has no favourites. 

The startling development has three dimensions to it. First and foremost, will the Trump administration’s shock therapy have a sobering effect on the rival Afghan factions locked in a struggle for power?

The answer is, unfortunately, that such a probability is unlikely to happen as per current indications — given the vaulting ambitions of the protagonists. Both Ghani and Abdullah also have associates who would have their own agenda. 

Having said that, Afghans also have a great tradition of reaching compromises and consensus at the last minute before an irrevocable break-up. Such a fortuitous turn of events can happen in the present circumstances only if Ghani accepts a coalition government with power-sharing of key security portfolios.

Arguably,  the struggle may even take an ugly form and become “physical” unless great self-restraint is exercised. There are ominous reports that the warlords have come out of the woodwork and are marshalling their militia. 

The government also commands shadowy militia groups beyond the pale of law who have been trained by the US to function as a state within the state. Indeed, Afghanistan has a violent history and its democratic temper is only skin-deep. Peaceful transfer of power is a recent phenomenon under the US diktat. 

Second, what will be the impact on the security situation? The critical factor here is that, undeniably, there are ethnic undertones to the Ghani-Abdullah political rift and how they might impact the cohesion of the Afghan army and security forces is anybody’s guess. Of course, the US has been bankrolling the Afghan army. 

To jog memory, it was Najib’s inability to pay the salaries of the Uzbek militia guarding Kabul city in the critical period since the Soviets withdrew aid that ultimately became a clincher for Rashid Dostum’s treacherous defection to the Mujahideen camp of Ahmed Shah Massoud that in turn resulted in the roof coming down on the communist regime. 

Third, how will the Taliban react to these big shifts in the politico-military alignment? Clearly, Taliban is already at peace with the US forces. Strict orders have been given to the commanders not to engage the US military. 

Thus, the state department’s assurance that the US military will not be party to any conspiracies by the hardliners in Kabul to precipitate confrontations with the Taliban becomes important. In good measure, Pompeo also flew to Doha to meet the Taliban leaders to discuss the current impasse. Taliban will make careful note of Washington’s eagerness to stick to the Doha pact — and it will reciprocate. 

Now, if Ghani resorts to delaying tactic much longer in releasing the Taliban, it may provoke the Taliban into ending the current (tacit) ceasefire and step up its operations against the Afghans security forces with a view to demoralise them. 

There are also indications of Taliban having infiltrated the Afghan army and police and security agencies. 

Suffice to say, it will come as a surprise if the Taliban does not take advantage of a most conducive situation arising in Afghanistan — a rump administration ruling the roost in Kabul, lacking in political legitimacy (and the US distancing from it); the grim political struggle for supremacy amongst the Afghan factions that may take a violent form; the chain of command of Afghan forces coming under stress due to the ethnic fissures; and, the strong possibility of Trump unilaterally extricating the US out of the war at some point in a near future. 

The big question is whether the Taliban will be savvy enough to wait for Kabul to fall like a rotten apple or will hastily pluck it as a low-hanging fruit. 

The bottom line is that the Taliban (and Pakistan which mentors it) would see that the political ascendance of the Taliban in Kabul, whenever it is due, happens with international legitimacy. The Trump administration’s stated preference still is to reach a negotiated peace settlement as envisaged under the Doha pact through intra-Afghan dialogue. And Taliban too adheres to the Doha pact. 

It is unlikely that Taliban will opt for a decision to grab power through force. The preference at this stage will be to pitch for an interim government that is inclusive so as to carry as many Afghan factions as possible. 

Make no mistake that time works in Taliban’s favour. Unlike in the past, Taliban has networked extensively with the international community in the recent years — especially with the major regional states — and its interest lies in securing world recognition for any future government under its leadership.