The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
17,844 killed, 55,094 wounded, exponentially more displaced – welcome to Afghanistan, the “Graveyard of Empires.” This bloodshed represents the estimated number of U.S. service members and civilians affected by combat operations within Afghanistan over the past 17 years. The U.S. and Afghan governments agree: A military victory is not possible, and a peace agreement is essential. But “with an adaptable, resolute enemy like the Taliban, negotiating a political agreement to end the war is a daunting task,” according to Jamie Lynn De Coster, a strategic adviser to the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
In a statement from the the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, the U.S. government intends to support, facilitate, and participate in these negotiations, but it has indicated that the Afghan government and Taliban must lead these discussions. The de facto leader of these lobbying efforts is the United States – one of their many responsibilities in these negotiations. But international support for the peace deal is crucial to its success. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani implored states to lobby other states in support of this peace agreement, especially Pakistan. Without international cooperation, a peace treaty with the Taliban is unlikely.
a. U.S. Role in the Peace Process
The United States’ primary policy objective in Afghanistan is “to ensure that the country does not become a haven for virulent salafi (radical anti-Western jihadi) terrorist groups like al-Qaeda,” according to Brookings Senior Fellow Vanda Felbob-Brown. But the United States understands that a resolution will be through a negotiated political settlement, not war. A peace process with the Taliban will be slow and painstaking, but the environment in Washington is not conducive for this type of negotiation.
Critics argue that the United States should withdraw from Afghanistan, but it has maintained that it will only withdraw if terrorists are completely eradicated from the country. Since Afghanistan requested a U.S. military presence, there is no urgency to withdraw troops. Additionally, the United States is using its forces to “help shape the conditions for a successful negotiation.” Under the Trump administration, rules of engagement in Afghanistan have been loosened, allowing “international forces…to deliberately target Taliban and their associates.” The new rules of engagement also permit “attacks against Taliban revenue generation, particularly in the narcotics sector of the Afghan economy.” Eliminating the Taliban’s main source of income, narcotics, is essential to pressuring the Taliban into negotiations.
The United States is open to conceding some of the Taliban’s interests, including lifting sanctions and allowing for the safe return of their leadership to Afghanistan. But in return, it wants the Taliban to sever all relationships with al-Qaeda and cease harboring organizations committed to attacking the U.S. homeland. Furthermore, a senior State Department official from the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs called for the Taliban to “renounce violence and…accept the Afghan Constitution – including its protections for women and minorities.” Despite the significant influence the United States wields regionally, it is not the only state with a role in these negotiations.
b. The International Community:
Besides boasting the world’s sixth largest population, nuclear capabilities, and a formidable military, Pakistan is also strategically located at the crossroads between the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Pakistan’s support is essential to the success of these negotiations; without their cooperation, “the United States will not be able to force the Taliban to full capitulation.” Pakistan has maintained close ties with the Taliban, covertly and overtly, throughout the years. Because of this relationship, Pakistan can leverage its influence with the Taliban and force it to the negotiating table. But some argue that “Pakistan has no intention of seeing an end to the Afghan conflict unless it is certain about the endgame in Afghanistan and its own role in the country’s political future.”
In the past, Pakistan simply provided sanctuary to the Taliban. But, more recently, it appears Pakistan is “lending concrete operational support to the Taliban inside Afghanistan.” This newfound support is “aimed at gaining the Taliban more political leverage” for the peace negotiations. The newly appointed Prime Minister for Pakistan, Imran Khan, offers another dimension to the drama. Khan seems to be an ally of the Taliban and is currently lobbying the Afghan President to “accept the Taliban’s demands for a power-sharing deal.”
Forcing Pakistan to surrender control of its proxy force will not be easy, but the United States does have some options at its disposal. Recently, the U.S. government suspended its military assistance to Pakistan. Additionally, the United States threatened to withhold monetary aid for any hostility concerning these negotiations. In other words, the U.S. government expects “unequivocal cooperation” for ending Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan.
But Pakistan also has the ability to combat these policies. The United States still relies on Pakistan for critical supply routes for the war. Roughly 40 to 50 percent of all “vehicles, construction material, spare parts, and fuel required to supply U.S. and NATO forces deployed to Afghanistan still travel through Pakistan.” Pakistan could easily deny the United States access to these routes, which would further complicate its efforts in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has also been in contact with Russia regarding the political and economic stability of Afghanistan. Pakistan is urging Russia to “counter mounting American pressure on Pakistan to close safe havens used by the Taliban.” Russia responded positively to Pakistan’s overtures, and now both countries are “aligning their approach to support a ‘political solution’ to the Afghan conflict.” Whatever this approach is, it is of serious concern to the United States.
Russia’s presence in the Middle East is nothing new to the international community, but its burgeoning relationship with Pakistan is unprecedented. This affiliation is purely for strategic purposes – eliminating the threat of ISIS and undermining American influence are Russia’s main objectives. Russia views ISIS as a global pandemic, whereas the Taliban are a more localized issue. Consequently, Russia considers the Taliban an ally in the fight against ISIS.
Not all states are adopting an adversarial approach towards the United States and the peace settlement. Both the United States and China “want to see a stable and secure Afghanistan that does not tolerate [and prevents]…the presence of terrorists.” Although China tends to remain neutral in the Middle East, it has recently taken a more proactive approach towards Afghanistan. Mordechai Chaziza of the Middle East Institute explains that China is an interesting player in this geopolitical tug-of-war since it “arrives with no religious, political, historical, or colonial baggage, making it an ideal candidate to break the gridlocks in the region’s conflicts.” Because of its unique international standing, “China may be the only mediator that can bring all the opponents to the negotiating table,” a result the United States is desperately seeking.
But China continues to employ aspects of its traditional foreign policy in the Middle East, cautiousness being the cornerstone of this policy. China maintains a close relationship with Pakistan, which may be one reason it is wary to meddle further in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, convincing China that the region requires more than conflict management would provide another influential and beneficial partner for the United States.
Throughout the years, India has played a significant role in Afghanistan’s economic development and reconstruction. Although India has been reluctant to send combat troops to Afghanistan, it has provided assistance to the Afghan national defense and security forces. Unsurprisingly, India’s assistance in Afghanistan strengthened its relationship with the United States. But the U.S. rapport with India has only fueled the animosity between the United States and Pakistan. India’s efforts within Afghanistan convey a clear message to Pakistan: it will not allow Pakistan’s actions to remain unchecked in the region.
Can Afghanistan and the Taliban, which adhere to antithetical ideologies, agree to a peace settlement? Or is coercive force the only method for achieving actual acceptance of liberal social reforms and allegiance to the current Afghan government? In 17 years, the latter proposal has not produced the desired results. And it is clear that the Afghan President and numerous international partners desire peace. However, negotiating a peace deal means negotiating the tangled web of alliances surrounding the Taliban and this conflict. As a peace broker, the United States will have to thread its way through a multitude of demands to find coherent and restful peace in Afghanistan. But after 17 years of war, if a peace negotiation can lead to a meaningful political solution, the United States must do everything in its power to ensure its success.
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Steven Arango is a 3L at the University of Alabama School of Law and a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. After graduating from law school, Steven and his wife will live in Texas for a year while he clerks for U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez, Jr. After completion of this clerkship, he will return to active duty in the Marine Corps for at least five years.