While the U.S. government, Taliban, and Islamic Republic of Afghanistan wish to end the ongoing armed conflict, a potential unilateral political settlement excluding the Afghan people from participation in the substance discussions of negotiations between the self-ascribed Taliban Emirate and U.S. government is problematic, to put it mildly. The tactical impact of any unilateral peace settlement with the Taliban will have insignificant impact on terrorism activities in Afghanistan; terrorism is a transnational security issue. Alternatively, a multilateral comprehensive political settlement – Afghan led and owned – can facilitate for a sustainable peace and significantly mitigate and ultimately diminish terrorism activities in the country.
The U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan are clear: “Stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America and prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against the U.S., or anywhere in the world for that matter.” Most recently, U.S. and Taliban representatives had agreed in draft on two out of four issues: counter-terrorism and U.S. troop withdrawal. While details are yet to be filled, the assumption that the Taliban would delink itself from terrorist organizations, guarantee absence of terrorism activities in Afghanistan, and peacefully reintegrate into the Afghan polity as a political faction is an empty promise, objectively viewed.
Toward the stated goal, I offer two reasons for making the case: First, the perceived conflation of U.S. troop exit with the Taliban’s promise to separate itself from terrorist organizations does not guarantee an absence of terrorism activities in Afghanistan. This is exemplified by the collapse of the Taliban regime and the U.S. military surges into Afghanistan and Iraq. Second, any exclusion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan from active participation in the substance discussions of the negotiations between U.S. and Taliban representatives contradicts both parties’ expectations of achieving Afghan national reconciliation, permanent ceasefire, and the counterterrorism mutual objective.
There is some evidence that casts doubt on the efficacy of a potential unilateral political agreement between U.S. and Taliban negotiators. If the deal between the Afghan Taliban and U.S. government is reached, it will require the Taliban to cut its relations with any terrorist and insurgent groups within or outside Afghanistan. Also, consider the following: a plethora of extant literature demonstrates that the Pakistani Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) provides critical sanctuary to the Taliban leadership, advice on military and diplomatic issues, and assistance with fundraising. The Taliban is one of 16 groups (majority based in Pakistan) that formed Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in 2014, after ISIS separated from the Al-Qaeda Central (AQC).
The U.S. government sanctioned some of the Taliban and Haqqani Network financiers and facilitators, and the Taliban’s income goes well beyond drugs: tax, gems, timber, wildlife, etc. Additionally, distinguished research fellow at the Center for Strategic Research National Defense University, Dr. Thomas F. Lynch III argues that India and Pakistan treat influence in Afghanistan as zero-sum game: Pakistan’s ISI supports the Afghan Taliban as security proxy counterweight, while India builds infrastructure in Afghanistan.
The 2017 Country Report on Terrorism states that “The Pakistani government pledged support to political reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban but did not restrict the Afghan Taliban and HQN from operating in Pakistan-based safe havens and threatening U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.” It is less likely that the negotiations directly include a plan to address the opium problem, which is a financial driver of the war. Furthermore, in pledging to prevent terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, the Taliban is making a promise that will prove difficult to keep. These are facts that the Taliban disputes and rejects.
However, a correlation is seen between the degree of Taliban influence on terrorist activities and its impact on the state of general security in Afghanistan. Whether the Taliban has limited or greater influence in the decision-making processes or on the behaviors of the distinct groups to which it is linked remains ambiguous. This is due to lack of reliable open source information about the Taliban transactions, operations, and decision making processes. But it is expected that the Taliban might be treated differently by its affiliates if it explicitly declares itself independent. Consequently, the tactical impact of a political agreement between the Taliban and the U.S. government on terrorism activities in Afghanistan is limited. Answers to how limited it is may lie in the degrees to which economic, political, ideological, and material influence is measured. Therefore, it is misleading to conflate a U.S. military exit and the Taliban promise of counterterrorism with zero terrorism activities in Afghanistan. The flip side of this is that terrorism existed before, during and after the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Alternatively, I maintain that a comprehensive single multilateral agreement negotiated between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Taliban Emirate, and U.S.-led coalition is a win-win situation. This kind of political settlement can ensure a permanent ceasefire, a national Afghan reconciliation, and an acceptable international troops exit for the involved parties. This will not entirely eliminate emerging security threats. Counter-terrorism is more likely to continue in Afghanistan for the foreseeable next.
Recent developments such as the advisory Loya Jirga, U.S. and European Union’s diplomatic support for the peace process, preparations for the general elections (2019), and the Taliban willingness to sit and negotiate with the Afghan delegation – representing the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the general public, are encouraging, all else considered. The financial and political costs in reaching a political settlement with the Taliban would require all parties to the negotiations to think clearly about outcomes and the tactical impact on terrorism activities. The implementation of a desired multilateral peace agreement would require at least three years for it to demonstrate a reasonably considerable examination.
War is difficult to do and comprehend. War requires the will of living forces to fight it. War costs life and resources. It is difficult to end the war because terrorism still here. Yet all wars end. How will the war in Afghanistan end? It is yet to be seen. The next crucial question is: what would a counter-terrorism fight look like in any post-peace agreement scenario, in Afghanistan?
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Hakim Jan is an Afghan Fulbright scholar and M.A. candidate in the Security Policy Studies Program at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.