Afghan troops stand behind alleged Islamic State fighters in Jalalabad on April 10, after their arrest. Officials said five IS fighters and three Taliban were caught with bombs and other items during an operation in eastern Nangarhar province. Photo: AFP / Noorullah Shirzada

Henry Kissinger wouldn’t have approved of the way that Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, handles the Afghan peace talks. Even if Twitter was set up in the late sixties, Kissinger would not have used it to signal to Hanoi or the Vietcong.

But, caught between the “Khalid Operation” — the Afghan government’s new security plan —  and the Taliban’s Operation Al-Fatha (“victory” in Arabic), Khalilzad began tweeting furiously to vent his exasperation.

What emerged from Khalilzad’s tweets over the past few days is that his negotiations with the Taliban are in a state of drift. Khalilzad blames the Taliban for being “reckless” and “irresponsible” in announcing the spring offensive. He claimed: “Many Talibs including fighters and some leaders oppose this announcement.”

He maintains that the US and its allies back Kabul’s security plan, but qualified it by saying Washington also seeks “to bring parties to the table to  negotiate peace.”

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, has been frustrated by recent developments that have slowed his push for peace. Photo: AFP

Khalilzad urged “all sides… [to] end unnecessary violence, and instead engage in intra-Afghan dialogue which leads to negotiations on a political settlement and a road map to end the war this year.” The urgent requirement, he said, was for a “comprehensive ceasefire and negotiations leading to a lasting peace.”

Doubt on intra-Afghan talks

The sequence of events over the past fortnight suggests that Kabul has effectively put a spoke in the wheel just as the Taliban appeared, finally, to soften its stance and agreed to meet government representatives as part of an intra-Afghan dialogue. The sudden announcement of the Khalid Operation on April 2 drew a stern Taliban reaction on April 12 — its spring offensive.

A day later, on April 13, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani hit the Taliban hard with a sharply-worded statement condemning the spring offensive and vowing that the Afghan forces have been “clearly directed to take counter-measures to defend the country.”

The fate of the inter-Afghan dialogue, slated to take place in Doha on April 19-21, hangs by a thread.

Afghan leaders who are enthused by the idea of the intra-Afghan dialogue feel stranded — Hamid Karzai, Haneef Atmar, Atta Noor, Ismail Khan, Younus Qanooni, Mohammad Mohaqiq, etc. In a statement on Sunday, Karzai expressed displeasure over the “Khalid operation”.

In essence, Ghani and his circle — Defense Minister Assadullah Khalid, Interior Minister Amrullah Saleh, National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, etc. — will have one more “fighting season.”

Afghan people gather around the Shrine of Saint Sakhi Saib as they celebrate the Persian New Year Nowruz in Kabul on March 21, 2019. Photo: AFP / Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu

Iran incensed

And the coming fighting season could be exceptionally violent because a new player has appeared. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is no longer a phantom. Although concentrated presently in the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar bordering Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, ISKP’s regional ambition spans Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan and it takes a special interest in the Af-Pak region. On March 11, ISPK claimed to have undertaken a major operation in Lahore killing Pakistani security personnel and last week in Quetta.

In this increasingly murky backdrop where the battle lines are getting blurred, Ghani’s circle is confident that Khalilzad can be stalled from imposing a peace settlement. What counts most will be the support of two regional states — Iran and India. These two countries share Ghani’s angst over an imposed Afghan settlement.

Tehran is furious about the Trump administration’s recent move to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its elite wing the Quds Force as terrorist organizations. The Quds Force leads Tehran’s Afghan strategies. Yet, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened last week that Washington regards the legendary commander of Quds Force, Maj Gen Qassem Soleimani, as a terrorist in the same way as the ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

It is doubtful if Pompeo consulted Khalilzad before threatening to eliminate Soleimani. At any rate, there is going to be a price to pay. An influential Iranian strategic expert close to the IRGC, Saadullah Zarei warned in an interview on the weekend that Iran has many friends in the region and Washington should know that its IRGC designation is going to have major repercussions.

Zarei added cryptically: “The consequences have already started, as we can see that the American forces are now exposed to serious risks in Afghanistan.”

Afghan men wearing prosthetics, after losing their legs in landmine blasts, sit at the Red Cross hospital in Kabul on March 27, 2019. Photo: AFP / Wakil Kohsar

India wants a durable peace 

As for India, the compulsions are more varied. Delhi is on the same page as Ghani in harboring a grudge that Khalilzad keeps it out of the loop on the Afghan peace talks. Khalilzad, of course, is playing safe, because any display of camaraderie on his part with Delhi will only antagonize the Pakistani leadership, which won’t do his peace mission any good.

On the other hand, Delhi has invested heavily in Ghani’s circle, who in turn reciprocate with unreserved strategic trust in India’s commitment to push back at Pakistan, something which they cannot do on their own. Both estimate that Pakistan is persisting with an insidious strategy to gain a backdoor entry for its protégé, the Taliban, in the governing structure in place in Kabul — something Islamabad failed to achieve militarily.

They view with suspicion Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s refrain regarding the need for an interim government in Kabul. They assess that Khalilzad is ambivalent about it. India has conveyed its disquiet directly to Washington in regard to any move to replace Ghani with an interim government on whatever pretext.

An Indian analyst with links to the security establishment wrote recently that the US “cannot afford to achieve durable peace” in Afghanistan via a settlement that sidelines or bypasses the Ghani Government and India. He warned: “At best, any hurried tactically expedient contrived settlement arrived at by [the] US Special Envoy at Doha with unwarranted compromises may only secure a temporary reprieve and fig-leaf for withdrawal of US Forces from Afghanistan. Such a compromise will not only fail to achieve durable peace in Afghanistan but also inherently carry within itself seeds of renewed conflict and strife in the immediate wake of exit of US Forces from Afghanistan.”

However, what the Indian establishment is not going to articulate openly is that far beyond its concerns regarding Pakistan’s perceived power projection into Afghanistan, there is also the dark and brooding medium and long-term scenario that China is “waiting in the wings to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s collusion”, once the US forces withdrew. Indeed, Delhi welcomes a permanent US military deployment to Afghanistan, similar to the decades-long American presence in Japan and South Korea.

Without doubt, high-level consultations between Delhi and Washington are needed, given India’s centrality as a pivotal player in the US-conceived Indo-Pacific security template. The current preoccupations in Delhi over the general election will be over by May 19, and in the interim, the Indian establishment is heaving a sigh of relief that the Ghani government has succeeded in slowing down Khalilzad’s push for peace.

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