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Tim Willasey-Wilsey, Cipher Brief Expert

Tim Willasey-Wilsey is a Cipher Brief Expert on Afghanistan and Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College London and a former senior British diplomat. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of any institution.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE – The US plan for Afghanistan has much to recommend it; in particular the decision to involve the regional powers. The weaknesses relate to confiding in Taliban and Pakistani companies with no credible means of enforcement. But there may be ways to avoid this risk by allowing the Taliban to temporarily settle in Kandahar.

The 3 page letter and a draft 8-page peace agreement recently sent by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani are works of remarkable immediacy. They reflect a sense of urgency. Blinken speaks of the need to get the peace process off to a ‘flying start’ and of the possibility that the United States will lose all its troops with 1st May. That urgency stems both from President Biden’s desire to “ end endless wars, ” but also to make the most of his recent appointment as office.

The letter came as a shock to Ghani and his clever but militant Vice President Amrullah Saleh. They had interpreted Biden’s overhaul of Afghan policy as a determination to restore the conditionality of a peace process that the Taliban had repeatedly violated with apparent impunity. Instead, the letter makes it clear that Blinken wants the Afghan government to change its stance. In a remarkably short tone of diplomatic niceties, it indicates from the very first line that the United States views Ghani as just one of Afghanistan’s leaders and influencers. It cites Abdullah Abdullah (the Chairman of the Supreme National Reconciliation Council), former President Hamid Karzai, and seasoned Muslim warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf among others.

The message is blunt. The United States wants a peace deal. Afghan divisions “must not sabotage the opportunity before us”. In a final paragraph that can only be seen as a threat, Blinken not only mentions the option of withdrawing US troops by 1st May adds that “even with the continued financial support” from the US, he fears the Taliban’s rapid gains.

The language of the draft peace agreement has been sensibly designed to raise little objection from either side. In designing the key institutions of the transitional “Peace Government”, Washington proposes a 50:50 division of power between the Taliban and the current Afghan government, with the vote of the president or candidate being decisive. It stipulates that the interim government must have “a meaningful inclusion of women”. A State Leadership Council will ensure that representatives of both parties consult on matters of national importance. A constitutional committee would then draft a new constitution for approval by a Loya Jirga (a traditional Afghan Grand Council of elders) before the election. Meanwhile, a ceasefire would be in effect overseen by a ceasefire commission and an international observation mission. All these measures would be in line with a pre-determined timetable yet to be agreed.

A skeptic can be forgiven for finding this plan completely unrealistic. Even the current Afghan government has failed to hold a successful election since 2009, without the participation of the Taliban. Blinken’s potential game-changer, however, is the involvement of important regional players; China, Russia, Iran, India and Pakistan under the auspices of the United Nations and with the possible involvement of Turkey, if only as hosts at this stage.

All these countries want peace in Afghanistan and a stable Afghan government. China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan are also eager to see US and NATO forces leave Afghanistan soon. Some will want additional insurance; China that Uyghur militants cannot find refuge in Afghanistan; Russia that opium and heroin routes to the north are banned and Iran that the Hazara Shia minority is protected and Baluchi militants are expelled. Only India will be concerned about the US departure and Pakistan’s potential to become the dominant power in Afghanistan.

No wonder Zalmay Khalilzad (the US Special Representative for Reconciliation in Afghanistan) and General Austin Scott Miller (Commander of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan) visited Islamabad this week to consult with Pakistan’s Chief of Staff General Qamar Bajwa. Bajwa is increasingly becoming the dominant figure in Pakistan following Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent political woes. It was Bajwa who was behind the unexpected ceasefire agreement with India last week, following a number of conciliatory speeches against India in February. Cynics marvel at the timing of the speeches that began just after Biden’s inauguration. What Khalilizad needs from Bajwa, however, is a firm commitment that Pakistan will back his plan and not allow the Taliban to renounce the deal once in Kabul.

Here’s the only glaring weakness in the plan: the lack of verification and enforcement. Many countries (such as Turkey, Malaysia and the Nordic countries) may be willing to participate in an international observation mission, but no country will be willing to take on a role that could lead to protracted conflict. The Afghan government that allowed the Taliban into Kabul, even as part of a peace government, poses an existential risk if that agreement fails or the Taliban reverts to terms. It would take a fight like Fallujah (2004) or Mosul (2017) to drive them out of the city and no country or international organization has the appetite (and possibly even the ability) to fill that role.

Saleh will advise Ghani not to trust the Taliban or Pakistani promises. Instead, Ghani may decide to bluff Washington. He may have doubts that Washington is really willing to leave Afghanistan on 1st Perhaps at the risk of a quick Taliban victory, jeopardizing all hard-fought advances in women’s rights and counter-terrorism over the past two decades. The specter of Al Qaeda rebuilding camps in Afghanistan would certainly be too much for Biden and Blinken.

However, Ghani would be more sensible to get in touch with Blinken to build on his plan and make it more workable. One idea would be for a more decentralized solution to Afghanistan as an interim measure inviting the Taliban to establish themselves as civilian government in the city of Kandahar and surrounding provinces as part of a phased trust-building process with the aim of integration) of the armed forces, the preparation of a new constitution, national elections and the formation of a national government over, for example, a period of 3 to 5 years under the auspices of the United Nations. This would be a tough sell for both Bajwa and the Taliban, but they too have to share some of the risk.

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