Discussion: Afghanistan after the Collapse of U.S.-Taliban Talks
President Donald Trump recently canceled a “secret meeting” between top Taliban officials and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani as the Taliban conducted an attack in Afghanistan that killed an American soldier, along with a NATO officer and Afghan civilians. But Taliban officials visited Russia after talks with the U.S. failed in an effort to “restart discussions with the U.S.,” as the Wall Street Journal reported. So what does this mean for Afghanistan? How do other regional actors view this dilemma? Would Russia try to take advantage of the current situation? To discuss this, I am joined with Fatemeh Aman (@FatemehAman), a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and Dr. Monish Tourangbam, an assistant professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India.
Let’s start with Pakistan.
Currently, Pakistan is assumed to be playing a constructive role in coordinating talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. How is the recent cancellation of the “secret talks” in Camp David seen in Islamabad?
Fatemeh: Oh, Pakistan is not happy at all. They really worked hard to facilitate the meetings between the U.S. representatives and the Taliban. They were pursuing two things: First, securing and expanding their own influence in Afghanistan. They also aimed at clearing their border with Afghanistan from massive insurgent groups.
The other important factor for Pakistan to encourage the negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban was to expand their own influence in Afghanistan over that of India. As you know, India is viewed positively and has been involved in many major projects in Afghanistan. A return of the Taliban would lessen India’s role and increase Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan.
Monish: Pakistan’s strategy in Afghanistan has been largely destabilising for the cause of regional security. Whether it was during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban, or becoming a non-NATO ally of the U.S. global war on terrorism, Pakistan has worked with the single aim of strengthening its strategic depth inside Afghanistan. Therefore, when Pakistan claims that it has been playing a constructive role by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, it has rather created the problem in the first place and then claimed to be the only one who has the antidote for it. Given the claims of having played a critical role in pushing the Taliban to talk to the Americans, the cancellation of the talks has obviously led to Pakistan publicly expressing disappointment. It seems to be complaining to the Americans, that the abrupt cancellation has made Pakistan lose its bargaining credibility with the Taliban, and next time around, the Taliban will not be so receptive to their request to negotiate. Pakistan has been rather ambiguous regarding its support to the Afghan government and would stand to gain substantially with the Taliban getting major share of any future power-sharing in Kabul. Hence, one could see more pronouncements from the Pakistan government to all concerned to re-engage in talks again. As such, one has to wait and watch, as to how the Pakistani establishment, and more so, the Pakistani military assesses the evolving situation in Afghanistan and place their bets.
So, Monish, India is actively engaging with Afghanistan both in the economic and development realm, but also more recently in the strategic one as well, by investing in Iran’s Chabahar Port to play an active role in Afghanistan’s strategic dynamics in the long term in order to reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan. However, it has not yet committed sending troops to Afghanistan and has not played an active role in the recent peace talks (with the exception of sending former diplomats to one peace conference in Moscow). How does India view the Taliban in general, and what is New Delhi’s take on a hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan?
Monish: India’s interest lies in an economically sustainable, politically stable and socially inclusive Afghanistan, protected by a strengthened national security apparatus. India has been unwavering in its support and recognition of the government of Afghanistan as the legitimate representative of the interest of the Afghan people. India has been one of the most significant civilian aid donors to Afghanistan. Because of Pakistan’s refusal to provide overland transport route from India to Afghanistan, India has come up with a trilateral arrangement with Afghanistan and Iran to operate the Chabahar Port. However, given the inherent uncertainty in the Afghan reconciliation process and events leading to the cancellation of talks by the U.S., it is imperative for New Delhi to be nimble-footed in how it creates traction with the Taliban while retaining its support for the legitimacy of the Afghan government. While the history of India’s encounter with the Taliban has been inimical to India’s interest, debates abound in India regarding the ways to deal with the outcomes of the resurgence of the Taliban as a political force in Afghanistan.
The implementation of India’s development assistance has taken place under the umbrella of the security provided by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) led by the United States. As such, there is no prudent reason for India to oppose the presence of American security cover in Afghanistan. It would be desirable for the Afghan National Army (ANA) to take full responsibility for security in Afghanistan. However, given the population and territory controlled by the Taliban and the upswing in violence, India would be skeptical of any hasty withdrawal of American forces without a deal that puts the security and development of Afghanistan at the forefront rather than the need for U.S. withdrawal. New Delhi has been uncomfortable with the U.S.-Taliban talks without the involvement of the Afghan government. New Delhi had made it quite clear that it would stay the course in Afghanistan in support of the Afghan government and the Afghan people. However, its next steps would also depend on what kind of commitments the Americans can extract from the Taliban in future negotiations, following which, how the intra-Afghan talks will outline the prospects for peace and counter the challenges.
So, under what circumstances do you think policymakers in India are going to rethink their strategy of avoiding Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan?
Monish: India will not take any hasty step towards increasing its security profile in Afghanistan, apart from training Afghan military officers and supplying military equipment. Until now, India despite its substantial role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan as an aid donor has been some sort of a secondary player in political and security matters. As such, India’s role in Afghanistan stands circumscribed by the vagaries of geopolitics and by some form of self-restraint. New Delhi remains a steadfast strategic partner of Kabul. However, in the midst of uncertainties and the crowded theatre that Afghanistan has become for a number of stakeholders, New Delhi faces the challenge of figuring out what it wants in Afghanistan and what it is willing to do. In the shape of things to come in Afghanistan, New Delhi will confront the challenge of defining, or rather redefining what it would mean to sustain political assets in Afghanistan and influence outcomes to India’s favour. In this context, Indian policy mandarins have to crystalise its strategy to maximise its gains and minimise its loss in the Afghan quagmire.
So Fatemeh, as U.S.-Taliban talks are in the words of President Trump “dead,” some Taliban representatives have visited Moscow and Russian officials have already suggested that they may become a ‘guarantor’ for the implementation of a U.S.-Taliban agreement, but some analysts have suggested that the Kremlin could play nothing but a spoiler role in the peace process. Can Russia become a guarantor as some Russian officials have suggested? If so how, and if not, why?
Fatemeh: There are two important factors for Moscow’s desire for some stability in Afghanistan. First, Russia has concerns over extremists originating from Central Asia’s regions. These are groups that have found safe haven in Afghanistan, they view Russia as their number one enemy, and they could spill into Russia.
A defeat of the Americans in Afghanistan will lessen the pain of Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in 1989. Having said that, it will not be in Russia’s interest if Afghanistan is lost to extremist and insurgent groups. Some of these groups, as I mentioned earlier, stem from the Central Asian republics, predominantly Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is active in Uzbekistan. There are also the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. In addition, there are Uyghurs from China and some Chechen groups.
I think Russia wouldn’t mind a possible deal between the U.S. and the Taliban, leading to some stability in Afghanistan, if it does not grant the U.S. a permanent presence in Afghanistan and if is completely transparent and involves no secrecy. Russia felt that recent talks lacked transparency.
Russia prefers some influence on the Taliban should the Taliban be the more likely group to replace the Afghan government. The effort that Russia may put into these negotiations to succeed, is not a favour to the U.S. but is aimed at reserving a place for themselves in a hypothetical rule by the Taliban. The best scenario for Russia is to make sure a non-occupying presence for themselves in the future of Afghanistan and being portrayed as even-handed mediators. The bottom line is that Russia prefers the Taliban over all other insurgent groups such as the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). IS-K derives its name from Khorasan province, a historic name for a region that included most of modern Afghanistan as well as most of Central Asia and part of modern Iran and Pakistan. They also want to make sure that the U.S. is not coming out of this victoriously. The latter would be accomplished once the U.S. leaves Afghanistan without a major and effective presence.
Although an agreement isn’t signed yet, reports were suggesting that the two sides were close to a deal that includes reducing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan through a timeline in exchange for a Taliban promise not to become a safe haven for terrorist groups. How realistic is this kind of an agreement and taking the Taliban word for granted, given the fact that we already have IS-K in Afghanistan? Can the Taliban contain other radical groups in the country?
Fatemeh: It was an odd promise from the Taliban and odd that the U.S. would take their word at face value. Two factors were missing in this process: First, the actual number of the existing extremist groups and their members in Afghanistan is not clear and we don’t know their potentials. As for IS-K, we know that it stems from different Central Asian republics and from China. The number of its members and sympathizers is estimated to be a couple of thousands. The language and cultural barriers and challenges make IS-K’s presence in Afghanistan less visible in term of the number but more brutal in their methods. There are also local Afghans active with the IS-K. In contrast to the foreign insurgent groups, who are ideologically motivated, these Afghans are mostly desperate and poor and less ideology oriented. Note that IS-K has the fund to attract these locals.
The second factor is that we don’t know the extent of the Taliban’s internal dispute and differences. We have witnessed some major rifts that came to light after the death of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, was revealed. There were major issues between a faction influenced by Mullah Omar’s son, Mohammad Yaqoob on one side, and Akhtar Mansour on the other side. Mansour, who succeeded Mullah Omar, was killed in 2016 by a U.S. military airstrike, not far from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Since the Taliban is not a unified and homogenous group, we don’t know who within the group agrees with the peace talks and who disagrees. My point is that there could be no guarantee of any promises that the Taliban make since we don’t know who within the group rejects it. Having said that, there is no other solution than viewing the Taliban as the most powerful fighting group in Afghanistan. Even though there is not enough credibility in the Taliban’s promises and words, there are not many options left. The threat of foreign insurgent groups in Afghanistan is realistic and very high. So the urge to prevent the presence of these groups from being expanded could be considered a pressure factor on whoever is dealing and negotiating with the Taliban.
We already know that the Taliban is not interested in having a peace dialogue with the current Afghan government, so what is their endgame now? And what are the likely contingency plans for the Afghan government if the U.S. decides to leave without an Afghan reconciliation?
Fatemeh: That is exactly the dilemma. What is the place of the current Afghan government? Let me quickly point to some of the issues that have led to the current situation. There were times that both the Taliban and the government were willing to participate in the peace talks. They were engaged in several talks. Even a delegation of female members of the Parliament and representatives of the minorities met with the Taliban in Norway in 2015.
However, every time those negotiations started, the Taliban, in order to increase their leverage, escalated suicide bombings. With these casualties, resentment toward the Taliban increased and pressure on the government mounted to not engage in dialogue with the group. As a result of these psychological pressures, the government would turn away from the talks and the violence continues to this day.
For years the Taliban asked for direct negotiations with the U.S., which were rejected by the U.S. out of fear of giving legitimacy to the Taliban. The U.S. argued that there would be no talks without government representatives. However, that was also a mistake. The U.S. could have made some effort to hear directly from the Taliban and who knows; maybe they could have managed to bring the Taliban and the government together.
Some people draw analogies between now and the fall of the Soviet-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah in the early 1990s. Najib’s government could hold on to power for three years after the Soviets left Afghanistan due to the continuation of Soviet financial help for the government. Just weeks after he was ousted from power, fighting erupted between different factions and this ultimately led to a civil war involving six fighting groups.
But there are major differences between now and then. The regime of Najibullah was isolated and didn’t have a friend and supporter, except for the Soviets. The difference is that now the international community is supporting the government of Afghanistan despite all its shortcomings. Major financial aids have been wasted in Afghanistan through corruption. However, this government is still preferred over the Taliban or any other militant group coming to power in Afghanistan.
I believe if the Americans leave without constructive and lasting results, and if Afghanistan is rolled into violence, two scenarios may happen:
Afghanistan could descend into civil war: In this scenario, Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan, and Arab states each will start supporting and arming groups that they feel are less harmful to their interests. We have witnessed this scenario in the past. However, this time it will be more violent since many supporting countries are at odds with each other and IS-K is an additional factor, which was absent during the Soviet occupation. [The ideology existed back then but the brutality and the extent of the suicide bombings were nothing close to what we have witnessed in recent years.]
Before Afghanistan descends into civil war, China, Iran, and Russia may intervene actively and openly, regardless of afghan government approval. No one is interested in occupying Afghanistan. They have seen the fate of occupying forces in Afghanistan. What they may do, is concentrating their efforts against IS-K by heavily arming the Taliban.