By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
With the US and the Taliban having reached an agreement described as a “reduction in violence,” the chances of an ultimate end of the US’s longest-ever war have brightened considerably. With the Taliban calling the pact a historic moment and showing their own eagerness to end the war, chances of peace look real.
However, while the pact may bring the war to an end, the process is going to be a long one, taking place gradually over a year, and complicated by US plans to remain a vital player in Central Asia to counteract Russian and Chinese influence.
At the same time, although there is a lot of enthusiasm, there are some political lacunas that, when taken into account, seem to dilute the real significance for a durable and long-lasting peace in Afghanistan.
To begin with, the Taliban have always insisted on a complete withdrawal of US forces. While the “reduction in violence” and peace deal do stipulate a complete withdrawal, the presence of almost 8,600 US troops for over a year after the initial withdrawal of almost 5,000 means that the situation will remain extremely shaky, with the possibility that it could be easily be abrogated with a real or even an engineered violation of ceasefire.
The fact that 8,600 troops will remain deployed in practice the same number of US troops will be there that were deployed when US President Donald Trump came into power in 2016. In other words, what looks like a “withdrawal” now is, in reality, only a reduction to the number that were there before.
While the official time period given for complete withdrawal is a year and a half from now, the pace of actual withdrawal will most certainly depend on how the so-called “intra-Afghan negotiations” unfold.
Given Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic composition and the fact the 19 years of war have politicized ethnic faultlines like never before means that the process of negotiations, regardless of the Taliban’s friendly posture, will be highly contentious and indeed could drag on for years.
Therefore, the important question that no one seems to be asking is: will the US still withdraw if no “intra-Afghan” agreement happens after a year and a half from today?
There are deep political and inter- and intra-ethnic divisions that cut across both the dominant Pashtun and other ethnic groups. As such, whereas the Taliban are predominantly Pashtun, they have repeatedly called Ashraf Ghani, who is an ethnic Pashtun, a “stooge” and a “Western puppet.”
At the same time, Ghani, although he has been declared “winner” of the recent elections, is facing opposition and even legitimacy challenge from his previous coalition partner and chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, an Afghan Tajik. Abdullah has even written a letter to the European Union, criticizing them for recognizing Ghani’s legitimacy as a president.
Given that Kabul’s legitimacy is not recognized by either the Taliban or politicians, it appears that the “intra-Afghan” negotiations will not include Ashraf Ghani and his party. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that multiple power centers have appeared in Kabul, and some of the them, including some warlords, have started attempting to enter into agreements with the Taliban on their own, weakening the position of Kabul and those who advocate a Kabul-inclusive process of negotiations. That Kabul’s problems remain paramount explains why Ghani and his party oppose a full US withdrawal.
While a prolonged “intra-Afghan” dialogue will delay full withdrawal, the US seems to have other reasons to stay militarily relevant. Afghanistan is still relevant for the US’s ‘strategy for Central Asia’ which is to work with local states to strengthen their independence from “malign actors” – read Russia and to develop political, economic, and security partnerships with the US.
Whereas the difficulty of a true and all-inclusive “intra-Afghan” negotiations remains and it might delay a full withdrawal of the US forces, the fact that Afghanistan remains strategically important for the US in the latter’s newly announced shows that the US will remain involved in Afghanistan far beyond the ‘end’ of the war.
Indeed, the US has plans to connect Afghanistan with the Central Asian states and aims to expand and maintain support for Afghan stability. It aims to make the Central Asian nations stable, secure, and engaged partners of the United States and continue support for international efforts through connectivity programs like the CASA-1000 and Lapis Lazuli corridor, which aim to connect the Central Asian states with Afghanistan going all the way to the Black Sea, Turkey and then Europe.
Whereas the Taliban seem to have accepted this in the form of what Sirajuddin Haqqani called in his op-ed for New York Times a “constructive [US] role in the post-war development and reconstruction of Afghanistan,” it is not clear how the Taliban leadership and indeed their rank and file would eventually react to this seemingly never-ending US presence, considering that the cardinal purpose would remain to counter what Lisa Curtis, deputy assistant to the US president and senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, called “deepening Chinese influence” and “robust Russian influence in all spheres.”
Therefore, notwithstanding the “historic” deal between the US and the Taliban, the fact that Afghanistan is going to remain, as it always has, on the crossroads of super-power rivalry means that durable peace in the war-torn country may not yet be on the horizon.
A full US withdrawal from Afghanistan combined with a genuinely negotiated inter and intra-ethnic political settlement alone can bring peace, allowing the Afghans themselves to decide which connectivity programs they want to be a part of.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel.