Zalmay Khalilzad is probably going not a cheerful man proper now.
Khalilzad, the US particular envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, had been on an pressing mission: Launch a peace course of with the Taliban, and launch it quickly. With US President Donald Trump desperate to wind down the conflict, Washington has been desperate to get a deal to offer the president cowl for a withdrawal.
Khalilzad had made some progress. He facilitated a number of high-level conferences between senior US officers and Taliban representatives. Essentially the most encouraging change occurred within the UAE earlier this month.
“They informed me we can not defeat you,” Khalilzad stated in an interview with the Afghan TV station Tolo Information shortly after the UAE talks, referring to the Taliban. The insurgents informed him that “we must always first sit with you, which suggests the US, then with Afghans, and resolve the problems by means of political means.” On condition that the Taliban illustration included the top of its political workplace and chief of employees to supreme chief Mullah Akhundzada, such a conciliatory message is nothing to sneeze at.
After which, like a bolt from the blue, Khalilzad’s boss pulled the rug out from underneath him. Trump abruptly determined to withdraw practically half of the 14,000-strong US troops in Afghanistan.
This transfer makes Khalilzad’s job rather more tough, as Washington appears to have misplaced ample leverage in future talks.
Trump squandered a treasured alternative
The US president has given the Taliban what they’ve lengthy demanded – a dedication to withdraw troops – and so they did not want to surrender something in return, a lot much less conclude a deal. For the Taliban, the withdrawal determination is manna from heaven. For US negotiators, it is a punch to the intestine.
Getting the Taliban to comply with formal talks was a hard-enough promote earlier than Trump’s determination. The insurgents, who’ve pushed again onerous towards beleaguered Afghan forces and maintain extra territory than at any time for the reason that 2001 US-led invasion, had little purpose to cease preventing.
The Taliban has beforehand stated it could be open to formal talks with the Afghan authorities to finish the conflict as soon as Washington commits to troop withdrawals. So why not view Trump’s determination as a gap to launch a peace course of?
Sadly, as long as Afghanistan‘s present authorities stays in energy, that is possible not within the playing cards. Even with a troop drawdown plan, the Taliban will not be itching to speak to the present Afghan authorities.
Ever since US forces expelled the Taliban from energy in 2001, the group has denounced Afghan governments as illegitimate and puppets of Washington. The Taliban would argue that such crude characterisations apply significantly nicely to the current administration – a nationwide unity authorities that’s the product of a US-led negotiation, not an election.
After Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election ended inconclusively, US Secretary of State John Kerry was dispatched to Kabul, the place he hammered out a power-sharing deal between the 2 prime vote-getters, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. These two males lead the present authorities.
So when Taliban statements, such because the one launched in November, confer with the Afghan authorities as “put in by the People and imposed on the Muslim Afghan nation,” they don’t seem to be off the mark.
Finally, Trump’s unilateral drawdown determination might have squandered Washington’s greatest probability so far to launch peace talks. The Taliban is poised to capitalise on the brand new battlefield benefit generated by a drawdown unaccompanied by a peace deal, and to step up its combat towards a authorities to which it has little interest in speaking.
What are Washington’s choices now?
Ideally, Trump would stroll again his drawdown determination and provides Khalilzad’s diplomatic efforts extra time. It is simpler to justify a withdrawal if you happen to can say that at the very least you tried to make peace first.
Realistically, Trump is unlikely to vary course; he is by no means been snug remaining in Afghanistan. Moreover, the White Home – particularly with the approaching departure of Protection Secretary James Mattis – has few remaining senior officers who assist staying the course and are ready to persuade Trump to vary his thoughts, and even to decelerate the tempo of the drawdown. Trump may nicely announce a full withdrawal within the coming months.
So what can Washington do to choose up the items of a shattered alternative?
Step one is harm management. Prime US officers ought to guarantee Kabul that regardless of imminent troop reductions, they don’t seem to be abandoning Afghanistan. Washington ought to emphasise that it’ll proceed to supply vital funding to Afghan safety forces and to assist efforts to develop the Afghan Particular Forces, the crown jewel of Afghanistan’s military which is badly affected by overexertion.
Such measures can ease Afghan issues about US abandonment and restrict the Taliban’s potential battlefield features following US troop departures.
Second, if and when contacts with the Taliban resume, Washington ought to concentrate on getting the Taliban to formally resign ties with al-Qaeda. Analysts have lengthy feared that Afghanistan will revert to a global terrorism sanctuary within the occasion of a US withdrawal, and this concern could also be one purpose why a reluctant Trump agreed to maintain troops within the nation when he introduced his Afghanistan technique final 12 months.
The identical concern additionally drives the US negotiating technique. In his Tolo Information interview, Khalilzad stated, “If the menace of terrorism is tackled, the USA will not be searching for a everlasting army presence in Afghanistan.” The Taliban is actively preventing an area affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also referred to as ISIS), however it retains ties to al-Qaeda.
Right here is the place Pakistan could be useful. Washington ought to press Islamabad, which enjoys in depth affect over the insurgents, to take up the al-Qaeda difficulty with the Taliban, and to enlist key regional actors Russia, Iran, and China on this marketing campaign, as nicely. These 4 international locations do not get together with Washington, however in addition they have little interest in Afghanistan reverting to an al-Qaeda sanctuary.
There could also be a gap. Tricia Bacon, a scholar who research alliances between terror teams, has written that the Taliban will not be as depending on the operational and monetary assist it used to obtain from al-Qaeda, whereas al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri enjoys much less standing inside the Taliban than did his predecessor, Osama bin Laden.
Third, Washington ought to lengthen its full backing to Afghan presidential elections scheduled for subsequent 12 months. Given safety, technological, and logistical challenges, the ballot will possible be flawed, however the probabilities of the Taliban speaking to Kabul – and by extension, launching formal talks – are increased if Afghanistan’s management is the product of an election, warts and all, moderately than an exterior US-led meditation.
In latest days, Afghan election officers have indicated the ballot shall be postponed by a number of months to repair technical glitches. Within the best-case state of affairs, the delay wouldn’t solely repair issues within the election course of and make it extra credible, however it might additionally permit for extra time to construct a blueprint for peace talks with the Taliban to start as soon as the brand new authorities takes workplace.
Amid a all of a sudden receding US function and presence in Afghanistan, Kabul’s participation in a possible peace course of has by no means been extra vital. Khalilzad can restrict the harm of his boss’s rash determination by serving to create the best circumstances for an eventual launch of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace course of that Afghanistan and its long-suffering citizenry richly deserve.
The views expressed on this article are the creator’s personal and don’t essentially replicate Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.