On 19 November, the Taliban released Professor Kevin King from America and Professor Timothy Weeks, an Australian, in exchange for three important members of the terrorist group, including Anas Haqqani, the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani (the leader of the infamous Haqqani network), who were in Afghan custody.
Surprisingly, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, even while condemning the taking of innocent civilians as hostages, noted that, “The Taliban have indicated that the release of the two professors is intended as a goodwill gesture, which the United States welcomes”. Perhaps he did so, for he saw these prisoner exchanges as ‘hopeful signs’ of the Afghan war coming to an end ‘through a political settlement’.
Will US-Taliban Fresh Talks Aid Peace Negotiations?
On 29 November, President Donald Trump made a three-hour visit to the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan to be with US troops on Thanksgiving. He also met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. From Afghan soil, he revealed that informal contacts between America and the Taliban were taking place, and that he was hopeful that the Taliban would agree to a ceasefire.
Trump and Pompeo’s remarks put paid to Trump’s claims after he broke off US-Taliban contacts in September, when an agreement had been reached by the negotiators that US-Taliban talks were ‘dead’.
Clearly, the two sides resumed ‘quiet contact’ soon after the September setback, and the prisoner’s exchange deal is a result of their under-the-radar-negotiations.
Will this exchange help in taking the negotiating process towards lasting peace in Afghanistan? That is uncertain if not unlikely, for the fundamentals of the Afghan situation have not changed since September, and the Taliban have not indicated that they are willing to move beyond their pre-September stand. And the Afghan presidential election is not going to make them change their position even if it were to yield a credible result which it does not seem to be doing.
Trump’s ‘Preference’ for Ashraf Ghani
Ghani went all out to ensure that the presidential election took place despite a difficult security situation, which prevented all eligible Afghans from voting. Presidential candidates including Ghani’s principal rival, the current Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, have alleged corruption in the election process as well as in the counting exercise. Abdullah has also undertaken street agitations and has been obstructing the recounting of votes in 8 of the 34 provinces. All this has prevented the Election Commission from declaring the results.
It is significant that Trump only invited Ghani to meet him during his Bagram visit, although the current National Unity Government (NUG) is led by both Ghani and Abdullah.
In focusing exclusively on Ghani, the US has shown that it would prefer that he wins the election. They have subsequently reached out to Abdullah in a telephone conversation with him on 2 December, which emphasised the “importance of a transparent electoral process leading to a credible outcome”. He also “thanked Abdullah for his efforts to promote an Afghan peace process”.
Pompeo is attempting to heal the rifts in Kabul and perhaps avoid the discord that had emerged after the 2014 presidential election results. Then the US had put together the NUG. The question is, what would it do now. In any event, it is unlikely that the Kabul-based political class would unite under a newly-elected president. The fissures are too deep, and Ghani who in all likelihood will be declared as the winner, simply does not have the temperament or the skills to take everyone who matters along with him.
In an Election Year, Trump Would Want Low Key Peace Talks
It is in within this fluid and pessimistic context that Trump also said at Bagram, that the US troop levels would be reduced from their current level of around 12,000 to 8,000. Clearly, Trump is seeking to show the American electorate that he is doing all that he can to disentangle the country from the unending Afghan war. A troop level of 8,000 — with or without a settlement with the Taliban — can be projected as necessary to ensure that Afghanistan does not ever become a base for the launch of terrorist attacks against the US — that was the US’s primary motive behind starting the Afghan war.
Naturally, Trump’s preference would be to have a US-Taliban peace agreement that would not attract adverse comment during an election year.
In the pre-September negotiations, the US was willing to accept a general Taliban commitment to reduce violence but had not made it a pre-condition for the agreement. Thus, the envisaged scenario was: a Taliban commitment to ensure that international terrorist groups do not develop a base in territories under their control, the withdrawal of all US troops in a time-frame of a specified number of years, reduction in violence and the beginning of intra-Afghan talks.
Pakistan Knows Trump is Just a ‘Paper Tiger’
The US’s current attempt is to tweak this arrangement through the Taliban agreeing to a ceasefire and purposeful intra-Afghan negotiations in which the Taliban are not perceived to be in the driving seat.
There is no reason or incentive for either the Taliban or Pakistan to make concessions, especially as the Taliban derive their strength from their ability to undertake violence.
As for Pakistan, it knows that Trump, in the Afghanistan-Pakistan context, is a ‘paper tiger’ who is unwilling to enter Pakistan with ground troops to show real US power, and even more intent. Hence, it can and will play America as it has in the past.
In these bleak conditions, the agony of Afghanistan will not end anytime soon.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached@VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)