Afghan Taliban militants celebrate a ceasefire on the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, the second day of Eid. Photo: AFP
Afghan Taliban militants celebrate a ceasefire on the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018, the second day of Eid. Photo: AFP

There has been withering criticism from within the United States regarding the reported decision by President Donald Trump on troop withdrawal in Afghanistan. Predictably, Trump’s detractors in Washington are painting the town red lampooning his decision (especially its timing) and visualizing apocalyptic scenarios. But the good part is that no one has had the audacity to present an alternate road map.

The alternatives are: a) a military solution; b) an open-ended US occupation of Afghanistan; and, c) a massive step-up of the war effort by the US and NATO allies in troop deployment and funding. But no American politician, think-tanker or media analyst would have the gumption to propose these alternatives. Yet, this unwanted war isn’t even Trump’s creation; nor has he shied away, as his predecessor did, from his intention to end this war.

Trump can be faulted only for sharing the widespread opinion in America and abroad that this war is unwinnable and the sooner it is ended, the better. Quite obviously, the key underpinnings of the war – a credible Afghan army and a legitimate leadership in Kabul – are lacking and the Afghan nation as such is hopelessly fragmented while the country has been bled white by institutionalized corruption.

Trump’s detractors refuse to comprehend that his decision on troop withdrawal signifies a well-crafted political and diplomatic move to end the war. The media leak on his decision coincided with the conclusion of the talks in Abu Dhabi between US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban. The two developments are inter-related.

Succinctly put, the Trump administration timed a crucial confidence-building measure by publicly backing the promise that Khalilzad made to the Taliban delegation at the Abu Dhabi talks – namely, “We [US] want peace here with respect to set objectives – that Afghanistan will not be a threat for the US – and that we have a positive relationship with Afghanistan.” (See Khalilzad’s interview with TOLO News.)

Khalilzad added: “I explicitly told this to the Taliban team in Abu Dhabi… For example, the presence of the United States in Afghanistan relates to the situation. Our goal is not to have permanent military bases in Afghanistan. The goal is that if Afghanistan becomes peaceful and terrorism from Afghanistan is not a danger to the world, the United States will withdraw and will have a new relationship with the government of Afghanistan based on a bilateral agreement.”

No US official has ever acknowledged so explicitly that the American military presence in Afghanistan needn’t necessarily be the sticking point. The media leaks on Trump’s decision offer tangible proof that Khalilzad spoke on the full authority of the White House.

The media leaks on Trump’s decision offer tangible proof that Khalilzad spoke on the full authority of the White House

Second, a major topic of discussion in Abu Dhabi related to the question of a ceasefire. Interestingly, it was the Saudis and Emiratis who proposed that all sides negotiate all matters within a 3-month timeline and that the ceasefire should be declared during this period. According to Khalilzad, “The Taliban said that they would give feedback to their leadership and then respond to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

Put differently, by announcing a substantial drawdown, even ahead of any settlement, Washington has made a smart diplomatic move persuading the Taliban leadership to agree to a ceasefire at this juncture just when they seem to be winning the war. Indeed, the Taliban is hard-pressed to say ‘Nyet’ to the ceasefire proposal, which carries the imprimatur of the powerful Gulf Arab sheikhs who mentored the militant group in difficult times.

Finally, pressure is building on the Taliban to enter into intra-Afghan talks. The Abu Dhabi meeting was a turning point because Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US negatively reacted to the Taliban’s obduracy not to meet the Afghan delegation present there. As Khalilzad put it, “Questions were raised about if they [Taliban] really want peace, and if they want peace, why not sit at the negotiation table with the opposite side?”

Khalilzad hinted that a defining moment may have come insofar as it has become “apparent” after his recent meeting with the Pakistani army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, and taking into account the “role Pakistan played in Abu Dhabi” that there has been a change in the Pakistani policy in a positive direction.

Importantly, at the talks in Abu Dhabi, Pakistan “encouraged the Taliban to sit at the negotiation table with the Afghan government… there is no other way. They helped the Taliban to come from there and pushed them in a meeting that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and we were in; they emphasized this and promised to cooperate in preparing the Taliban to sit at the negotiation table with the Afghan government. I hope that peace will come to Afghanistan; war will come to an end…”

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has since publicly welcomed Trump’s decision on troop withdrawal. Significantly, the Taliban have yet to come up with a “detailed summary” of the talks in Abu Dhabi (which it promised on December 18) or reject Trump’s withdrawal plan. Trump himself is uncharacteristically silent as well on his reported withdrawal plan. His last remark on November 22 that the US is in “very strong” negotiations in Afghanistan turns out to be, in retrospect, an apt description of the subsequent developments leading to the US’s withdrawal decision.

All things considered, therefore, by putting the withdrawal plan in the public domain, the US has proposed a confidence-building measure that will encourage the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire and enter into intra-Afghan talks alongside the negotiations with Khalilzad. This approach is the right one because a point is fast coming when the US-Taliban talks and the intra-Afghan talks (Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled) will need to create synergy for taking the peace process forward. Pakistan’s support for this approach signals that we are edging close to a positive response from the Taliban.

Of course, Khalilzad now faces an even more daunting challenge in Kabul. There is hard work ahead to constitute a “broad, inclusive and influential … [and] united” Afghan delegation to engage the Taliban in talks. It will mean coaxing and cajoling or threatening and blackmailing recalcitrant elements in Kabul (as well as entrenched interest groups, some with support for foreign powers) who view with distaste the idea of any form of reconciliation with the Taliban. If anyone can knock some heads together in Kabul, it will be Khalilzad.

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