Latest Afghanistan Peace Talks Offer – Analysis
Brigadier (Retd.) Dr. Ahsan ur Rahman Khan
(Written in mid-March 2018)
The latest move by the Afghanistan President came with a bit of a surprise, in which he convened a conference of the countries involved in the so called Kabul Process and on 28 February 2018 offered a number of concessions to Afghanistan Taliban if they accepted to join in a plan to bring peace in the country. The surprise was due to the fact that since about some months US along with Afghanistan government had commenced a blitz of wide spread devastating aerial bombing strikes killing a record number of civilian men, women and children in the process of pursuing the Afghanistan Taliban to suppress and cow them down to bring them to the negotiating table; though rather than being cowed down, the Afghan Taliban were responding with increased deadly attacks causing hundreds of casualties. This sudden major change in the political decision making by the Afghanistan government, which obviously was at the behest of the US government, therefore deserves a very careful analysis to discern whether at long last could there be any chance of the ‘long wished for’ return of peace in Afghanistan, or is it going to be yet another failed attempt.
This short paper presents the required analysis covering the essential related aspects, i.e. (a) the actual objectives of US in Afghanistan, and the reasons for the current ‘softening change’ in US’ design to deal with Afghanistan Taliban; (b) the proposed concessions to the Afghanistan Taliban, and the latent intricacies of the proposal; (c) possible reaction of the non-Taliban Afghans; (d) discerned limits of any compromise by Afghanistan Taliban and US; and (e) the inferences drawn in the current time-frame.
Actual US’ Objective in Afghanistan
It is a well-acknowledged fact that US government’s claim was a complete untruth that it invaded Afghanistan to destroy Al-Quaeda who master-minded the 9/11 ‘Twin Tower’ attack and also to overthrow the Taliban government which supported Al-Quaeda. The reality was that much earlier than 9/11 US had already planned to invade Afghanistan and plant there a government of its own choice to attain its actual, albeit latent, objectives. That fact was published in a BBC report dated 18 September 2001 titled ‘US ‘planned attack on Taleban’. It mentioned that Mr. Niaz Naik former Pakistan Foreign Secretary was informed by the senior US officials in mid-July, at the UN-sponsored international contact group on Afghanistan which took place in Berlin, that US military action would go ahead against Afghanistan by middle of October to topple the Taliban government and install a government of moderate Afghans. Besides that, the then US Secretary of State Ms. Condoleezza Rice also mentioned in TV programmes that the approved US’ strategy/plan to invade Afghanistan to destroy Al-Quaeda and Taleban leadership, their command and control, etc. in Afghanistan was already in place in spring/summer of 2001, but it was kept secret, and was formally approved on 04 September 2001. That statement of the actual truth by US’ Secretary of State, extracted from various TV programmes is still available in the video recording of ARY’s TV programme ‘Power Play’ by Arshad Sharif dated 18 October 2017.
In reality the actual US’ objectives, in invading Afghanistan to occupy it militarily and install a government of its own choice in that country, were/are therefore, geopolitical/geostrategic. That aspect becomes very clear by having a careful look at the following map.
From this map it becomes amply evident that geographically Afghanistan is virtually a ‘strategic fulcrum’ in this region; and from the ‘politico-military stranglehold’ of this ‘strategic fulcrum’ US can geo-strategically gravitate towards Pakistan, China, Iran, Central Asia, and Russia. This ‘politico-military stranglehold’ of Afghanistan provides US three distinct capabilities, related to its actual geopolitical/geostrategic objectives in the region.
First, besides posing any sort of missile etc threats, US can also utilise this Afghanistan launch pad to create internal disorder/destability through the ‘covert terrorist operators’ of its own or/and its allies in the selected areas of these countries.
Second, for long US has been designing to remove the nuclear weapon capability possessed by the only Muslim country, i.e. Pakistan. Through Afghanistan, US has the ‘proximity’ capability of launching US’ CIA – Indian RAW combine proxy terrorists in Pakistan to spread terror-chaos in the country, with the plan of destabilising Pakistan to the extent where US could compel Pakistan to give up its nuclear arsenal and facilities apparently in the name of UN control.
Third, there are also reports that US is interested in exploiting the reported over a trillion USD worth of the un-explored mineral deposits in Afghanistan. This third capability, however, will entail quite a lot of development of related facilities and infrastructure, etc.
Discerned Reasons for the US’ ‘Softening Change’
It is well-known that all through the last about 17 years, US was facing a host of serious problems in establishing a real term ‘functional’ government of its choice in Afghanistan to further its geopolitical/geostrategic objectives in the region. And not only that, those problems have also constantly been increasing in magnitude – a mounting expenditure (1.07 trillion USD so far), over 2,000 US troops killed, thousands wounded and maimed, and thousands suffering from mental disorders (PTSD and TBI, besides suicidal tendencies), etc. However, despite the increasing problems US government has so far been insisting to continue with the hope of ultimately establishing its required government through the sheer use of brute military force and payment of hefty bribes to the non-Taliban Afghan war lords/power-wielders.
The sudden US’ ‘softening change’ therefore does not appear to be related merely to these quoted problems. In that context a careful look at some of the recent developments/happenings in Afghanistan helps in clearly discerning the reasons which has compelled the US government to meaningfully soften its stance towards Afghanistan Taliban. Some of those are:-
- The latest published BBC research report titled ‘Taliban threaten 70% of Afghanistan, BBC finds’, dated 31January 2018 shows that out of the 398 districts (within the 34 provinces) of Afghanistan, Taliban control 14 districts and have an open and active presence in another 263 districts.
- Even the security situation of the capital city Kabul – so heavily defended by US and Afghan forces – has become extremely precarious. That ground reality becomes absolutely clear in a very recent ‘on ground’ report by the award winning war zone reporter Lara Logan published by ‘Time’ on 14 January 2018. During her visit to Kabul Lara Logan met General John Nicholson Commander of US forces in Afghanistan, and Mr. Ashraf Ghani President of Afghanistan, besides others. She describes “Kabul is so dangerous, American diplomats and soldiers are not allowed to use the roads. They can’t just drive two miles from the airport to U.S. headquarters. They have to fly. After all these years, a trillion dollars, and 2,400 American lives — Kabul is under siege”. And to a question on this aspect by Lara Logan, General John Nicholson did admit this reality and tried to provide a reason by saying “Protecting the lives of our troops is our number-one priority”. Even President Ashraf Ghani did not sound optimistic when Lara Logan asked him as to how long will it take to secure Afghanistan, Mr. Ashraf Ghani replied “As long as it takes. Generations if need be!”.
- The internal strife between the central government of President Ashraf Ghani and the regional leaders is on the rise even in the government-controlled parts of the country. In December 2017 President Ashraf Ghani fired Mr. Atta Mohammad Noor the governor of Balkh province from his post, but Mr. Atta Mohammad Noor refused to comply with the orders and still remains the governor. Then after a month or so another governor Mr. Abdul Karim Khadam, has refused an order from President Ashraf Ghani to resign as governor of Samangan Province.
- Reports in the international media have started emerging that Afghan people have started openly showing a spreading feeling of despair and their dissatisfaction with the US-backed government in the country.
These developments/happenings certainly reflect serious danger for the US-backed system of government in Afghanistan. Afghan public’s spreading feeling of despair and dissatisfaction with this system is especially note-worthy. If that spreads further in magnitude, it may as well cause the implosion of the whole US-backed governance system in the country, which is bound to result in severe infighting and real term mayhem for the US forces as well. It is this clearly visible danger that has compelled the US government to bring in a ‘softening change’ in their design relating to the Afghanistan Taliban.
Proposed Concessions to Afghanistan Taliban and Latent Intricacies
The February 28 announcement by President Ashraf Ghani to the Afghanistan Taliban proposed a cease-fire, release of prisoners, removal of sanctions, and recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political group, besides the promise of considering Taliban’s further views in the peace conference. Apparently it sounded well. However, it did not at all cater for the two basic and long entrenched demands of the Afghanistan Taliban, I.e. (a) they do not consider the US-planted government in Kabul as a legitimate government, and hence demand direct talks with US government which ousted the Taliban government in 2001; and (b) they demand complete withdrawal of the US’ and all other foreign forces which are currently occupying Afghanistan, which is also a well-known ingrained psychological element of the ferociously independent-minded Afghan nation.
Those who know Afghans know it well that Afghans are a very proudly independent-minded nation. They are strong-willed, but not void of pragmatism. However, they just do not budge at all from their basic principled stance(s) which relates to their psyche. The proposal is therefore not likely to make any headway unless the two mentioned basic demands of Afghan Taliban are adequately catered for.
Possible Reaction of the non-Taliban Afghans
Composition of Afghan people comprises of Pashtuns (42%), Tajiks (27%), Uzbek (9%), Hazara ((8%), Aimaq (4%), Turkmen (3%), Balochi (2%), and others (5%). Out of these, the Afghanistan Taliban almost entirely comprise of Pashtuns, although since last some years people of certain other communities also joined the ranks of Afghanistan Taliban. The non-Taliban faction has been led by Tajiks, who along with Uzbeks and Hazaras assisted US’ invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban government. This faction has its major share in the US-backed government. This faction is therefore most likely not to oppose implementation of the proposed formula, even if including some power-sharing arrangement with Afghanistan Taliban, albeit after lot of ‘bargaining’. However, even for this faction too it is likely to be very difficult to ‘openly’ agree to allow the continued stay of the occupying US’ and allied forces in Afghanistan.
Discerned Limits of any Compromise by US and Afghanistan Taliban
It is obvious that it will be hard for US to completely give up its politico-military stranglehold on Afghanistan for the attainment of its afore-mentioned geopolitical/geostrategic objectives, for which it has been paying heavy price in terms of military personnel and finances. However, it is also evident that further continuation of US’ current politico-military stranglehold on Afghanistan is becoming extremely difficult due the afore-mentioned severe problems. In that context, therefore, it appears more probable that US may ultimately slide down from its ‘maximum aim’ (the three actual afore-mentioned geopolitical/geostrategic objectives) to certain lesser geo-economic and geostrategic objectives as its ‘minimum aim’ which it may be able to bargain with Afghanistan Taliban as a quid pro quo for meeting some of the more pressing Taliban’s demands about the new set up of Afghanistan government and related affairs.
On the other hand, Afghanistan Talibans also have their strengths and ‘non-strength’ (if not outright weakness). Their strength lies in many aspects: their fighting ability and national resilience to remain un-defeated by the world supper power for about 17 years by now; their skill both in ground attacks and guerilla warfare to squeeze the US-allied forces even in the capital city in the state of a siege; their demand for a complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country arouses supporting feeling even from non-Taliban Afghans, being an ingrained element of Afghans’ psyche; and the recently increasing political and economic support for them by China, Russia and Iran. However, they also have aspects where they lack strength: they are not militarily capable to oust the US-backed government, because US has not yet withdrawn from the country as was the case when USSR had withdrawn; their unity of command and organizational structure is not as strongly streamlined as was in the era of Mullah Umar; and the support from China, Russia, and Iran is not yet a real term challenge for US’ support for its supported government in the country. It therefore appears probable that Afghanistan Taliban may also try to reach some sort of an agreement with US government, without giving in on their two afore-mentioned basic demands.
Further progress on the proposed talks is possible only if US’ government finally decides to slide down from its maximum aim to lesser minimum aim, and also to address the two basic demands of Afghanistan Taliban as mentioned above. That is an aspect which is very difficult to predict about in view of the rather ‘hawkish’ pattern of US’ Afghanistan policy applied so far. However the chances of US’ government ultimately sliding down its objectives can also not be ruled out, keeping in view the recent record of sliding down of US’ policy decisions from almost belligerent to ‘negotiatory’ – examples, the cases of Iran nuclear deal, North Korea, etc.
In case US’ government decides to so slide down its objectives, it may offer to accept one of the basic demands of Afghanistan Taliban of having a ‘peace dialogue’ directly with US on the conditions that Afghanistan Taliban accept (a) to form a national government with an adequate power-sharing formula to accommodate other Afghan stake-holders; (b) to allow US to retain (even if on lease) the right to use the “Agreed facilities and areas” (US’ bases in Afghanistan) as agreed in the Security and Defense Agreement of May 2, 2012 between the then governments of US and Afghanistan (paragraph 7, p. 4 of the Agreement), these include nine US’ base facilities, at Kabul, Bagram, Mazar-e-Sharif, Heart, Kandahar, Shorab (Helmand), Gardez, Jalalabad, and Shindand (p.30 of the Agreement); and (c) to grant US the contractual arrangements for the exploitation of the reportedly huge mineral deposits in Afghanistan.
As for Afghanistan Taliban it is more likely that they may agree to grant contractual rights of mineral exploitation to US, along with certain other countries, because it will help in boosting Afghanistan’s economy also; and after hard bargaining, they may also agree to grant ‘some’ power sharing in the government to the non-Taliban Afghan stakeholders, though bargaining upon the distribution of key ministries is most likely to be quite problematic. However, the issue which is certainly going to remain the most contested is the US’ demand for retention of its military bases in Afghanistan, whereas on the contrary Afghanistan Taliban demand complete withdrawal of all US and its allied forces from the country. This issue may as well cause many break ups in the peace dialogue, if and when those commence. At this juncture at the best it may be hoped that this issue may as well be resolved at some time later if US and its allies agree for withdrawal of their forces from Afghanistan by a mutually decided date, and as a quid pro quo Afghanistan Taliban’s government allows ‘restricted’ use of just some of the bases by US in the country on lease for a mutually agreed period.