US-Taliban Peace Talks: So Close, Yet So Far

The United States slowly inched toward a peace deal with the Taliban since talks in Doha, Qatar began some months back. There is a strong desire in Washington to pull its troops out of Afghanistan since the 2001 intervention turned into the longest war in US history. Peace talks between the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban reached what seemed to be an agreement. Such a deal was contingent upon the Afghan government and this added factor makes the process more difficult.

The Afghan government was critical of any possible resolution because they feared loss of political power and held concerns over national security. They consider it unwise to relinquish any sort of political influence to the Taliban, an easily identifiable enemy of the state for many years.

The proposed agreement consisted of four main parts. First, a timeline of US troop withdrawal. Second, the upcoming presidential elections were to be secured so that they are free and fair. Thirdly, the Taliban were to be incorporated into the mainstream government. Lastly, an overall cease-fire between the US, Afghanistan, and Taliban forces. Simply put, the key factor throughout is that US would leave at the same time that the Taliban promised to become a peaceful and cooperative actor within the Afghan political system.

This would have been beneficial for the US because they would be finally relieved from military deployment to the region. Washington had a primary goal of pulling out 5,000 troops within 135 days, where there are currently 14,000 troops stationed. Further, the agreement was advantageous to the Taliban because they would finally be considered a legitimate political group.

The Afghan government had its reservations with the proposed US-Taliban deal because they believe the country would become unstable without the US military presence and they remained skeptical that the Taliban would uphold their end. This is a reasonable assumption as the Taliban is considered an enemy that has terrorized civilians with terrorist attacks, such as mass shootings, bombings, and kidnappings for years. The government is entitled to this viewpoint as it makes little sense to place trust in a group that has tried to destroy the political system of the country.

Terror attacks in recent days support the Afghan government’s hesitation towards giving the Taliban additional political power. Bombings left 10 civilians and 2 NATO service members dead. Nevertheless, Khalilzad stated that the US will not just merely withdraw, but seek “a peace agreement that enables withdrawal.” He was optimistic about the US-Taliban talks, where he viewed both sides getting what they wanted.

On September 7, President Trump canceled a Camp David secret meeting with Taliban and Middle Eastern leaders. He called off the summit due to the recent Taliban attack that killed a US soldier and others. Since the 2016 campaign, Trump has been a supporter of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and as president, he took steps to finally complete the task. It seems all has been lost on the mission now.

Dealing with any terrorist group can be problematic because they do not play by international rules like nation-states.  In this example, the Taliban expressed that they are ready for peace and then committed an attack that killed a dozen people the next day. In this sense, Trump was justified to cancel the contested meetings because the Taliban demonstrated they are not a peaceful actor.

Trump has said that Taliban negotiations are now “dead.” This could prolong the 18 year war; already the longest war in US history. The president has been critiqued for being hawkish at times insofar as his decisions often align with National Security Advisor John Bolton. In recent weeks, the media speculated that Bolton has been distanced from the Oval Office because his hawkish perceptions of foreign policy are more severe than both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Only the future will reveal if Afghanistan can finally achieve peace.

Image Credit: Associated Press. Photographer Alex Brandon. Shutterstock.

Will the United States – Iran Stalemate Impact the Afghan Peace Talks?

Photo Credit: ABC News. US President Donald Trump is pictured with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton.

On 5 May 2019, United States National Security Advisor, John Bolton, announced that the US would deploy a series of aircraft carrier and bomber planes to the Persian Gulf. Bolton added that this move was meant ‘to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime’, although the United States, ‘is not seeking war with the Iranian regime.’  While US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo reaffirmed that the United States is indeed not seeking warfare with Iran, these weapons of war remain present in the country.

This affirmation of non-conflict made by Bolton contradicts the information stated in a 2015 Op-Ed that he himself published in the New York Times. In this article, Bolton clearly expressed his disbelief that Iran would consider any negotiating to deviate from its perceived nuclear program, and therefore, as the title of the 2015 Op-Ed alludes, ‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.’

Approximately two weeks after Mr. Bolton’s May 2019 statement, a United States intelligence assessment, sourced from three unnamed United States officials, stated that the presence of these weapons were ‘having an effect on Iranian posture and behavior.’ This irrefutable tension and foreboding of conflict between these two countries brings into question the direct and potentially detrimental impacts of this decision regarding the concurrent United States Peace Talks with Afghanistan.

International partnerships between significant national powers such as Russia, Iran, Iraq and United States remain the crux of the success of the United States peace talks with Afghanistan, yet the United States’ current situation with Iran threatens to hinder the progress greatly. Examples of the potential impact were seen in late May 2019, where Iraq held its ground, vowing they would stand with Iran amidst the United States’ fears of the ‘Iranian threat’.

It is likely and predictable that similar allegiances could be established between other nations, including those that would stand against the United States, consequently harming the progress of any reconciliation or peace-determining efforts with Afghanistan. With the Taliban exhausting Afghan and international forces, it was suggested that the United States should focus a joint effort with the Afghan government in order to negotiate with the Taliban.

Vital to mention is the relationship between Iran and Afghanistan, two nations who share a language, religion and border. Iran’s discontent, lightly put, with the United States has been demonstrated through Iran’s support for Taliban factions, which in turn contradicts the Afghan Peace talk efforts. It has even been warned by Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, that the United States and Iran are at a ‘stalemate’ and must quickly de-escalate the situation with a mutual settlement and compromise that both parties can agree upon.

It is therefore proven that absent an amicable relationship between the United Stated and Iran, the likelihood of negotiations and further progress in the Peace talks with Afghanistan diminish without say. Considering the foregoing, the presence of weapons of war in Iran, despite intention, speculated or confirmed, will continue to hinder United States peace talk progress with Afghanistan, and this vicious cycle will not cease until the United States and Iran reach a harmonious settlement.

Pakistan: A Crossroads for US Defense Strategy

President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House Photo: PETER SOUZA

May 1, 2011: United States Navy SEAL Team 6 boarded two helicopters and crossed the Afghan border. They flew low, evading radar coverage on their way into Abbottabad, Pakistan (a military town home to the Pakistani military academy) and the location where U.S. intelligence believed they would find America’s most wanted criminal, the man responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

The excitement of the day eight years ago masked the fact that modern US-Pakistani relations were laid bare. A clearer picture emerged as the public discovered that the mission to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden was conducted without the knowledge or involvement of the Pakistani government and that this lack of transparency was not an anomaly in the era of the War on Terror.

During the Obama presidency, U.S. policy was designed to elicit Pakistani support in order to facilitate a renewed focus on winning the war in Afghanistan, as many Taliban elders sought refuge in the tribal regions of Pakistani northern Waziristan.

This entailed limited appeasement of the Pakistanis, in order to try to develop the partnership through billions of dollars in aid and support. Former Obama administration national-security council advisor Joshua White, now at The Brookings Institution, explained that at that time “the duplicity of Pakistan’s intelligence services was baked into the stock price of U.S.-Pakistan relations.”

Despite this understanding, as time went on inaction and opposition to US policy in Afghanistan would strain the relationship. It seemed the Obama Pakistan policy was doomed by a fundamental reality of US relations in the region: Security issues have always been the most pressing impetus for diplomatic relations, and they will always find a way to dominate the agenda.

The problem then and remains today that tensions will inevitably arise from a mismatch in security interests between the two countries. Several more diplomatic incidents involving CIA assassins and an unintentional attack on Pakistani forces by a NATO warplane would later underscore the reality of relations with Islamabad for Obama, who would later acknowledge that he questioned why the alliance existed at all.

The Trump administration benefits strongly from the hindsight of the Obama years. For them, the problem of demanding greater Pakistani action is much more one of stop-losses. Despite bilateral failings and differing priorities, the Pakistanis outstrip most other allied nations in counterterror action against organizations like Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani Network and other mutual nuisances, but less so when it comes to unilateral US concerns like the Afghan Taliban.

A senior US intelligence official interviewed by The New Yorker last year described the “maddening truth” that despite the willingness to give funding and sanctuary to Taliban leaders, “Nobody had taken more bad guys off the battlefield than the Pakistanis.” Islamabad’s willingness to prioritize their own interests has long been tolerated, but that may be coming to an end as the new administration’s foreign policy is seen as less flexible.

President Trump appears to be comfortable taking a hardline position with Pakistan, raising the bar for access to US aid in the hopes of greater support, while seemingly willing to accept diminished returns if they are not willing to step up counterterror efforts. Last year he spoke out on Twitter condemning Islamabad’s lack of commitment as he announced a wave of significant cuts to economic and military aid in an attempt to underscore the seriousness of his administration’s new policy.

For the administration, a diminished – but not severed – the alliance has some advantages.

The US occupies a precarious position, balancing concern for regional partners like India and the desire to continue efforts to develop an exit strategy for Afghanistan, which are heavily predicated on Pakistani support to the Taliban.

Reducing military aid while enjoying the benefits of the somewhat diminished counterterror efforts Pakistan carries out on its own would allow the U.S. to reassure commitments to India but would cost the U.S. significantly in negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. For now, Trump has not yet made clear which is the ultimate priority in the region.

Continued indecisiveness will threaten new bilateral economic agreements with India.

Given the mandate Indian PM Narendra Modi holds from his recent victory, he is likely to extend his hardline anti-Pakistan rhetoric, particularly after the widely condemned Pakistani sponsored JeM attacks on a bus of Indian troops in April.

As India rachets up tensions, Pakistan stands squarely in the crosshairs of this emerging and potentially invaluable alliance for Washington. India’s position as a regional power makes it a priority, as their capability to check back against the rise of China can resolve a signature Trump policy goal. Sacrifices are going to have to be made. The result of such decisions may be grave for Pakistan.

As future US-Pakistani relations evolve, there must be a greater focus on bilateral accountability, commitment, and anti-corruption efforts.

Without them, future efforts to combat terrorism in the region will likely remain productive when there is an ongoing mutual interest, but continue to be hampered by distrust and lack of commitment when U.S. attention turns to groups with which Pakistan finds strategic convenience in turning a blind eye, particularly with the Taliban.

Likewise, if the rift between the nations were to exacerbate, the Pakistanis may find limited access to important trade and economic aid which has been essential to the local economy and may struggle with counterterror coup-proofing to resist regional insurgents bent on vying for control of the country.

A significant part of the decision to retain the support of Pakistan needs to be made with respect to the continuing goals and strategy in Afghanistan. Pakistan has never made secret its efforts to back regional extremists in the northern tribal areas of that country and has long given refuge to Taliban elders within its borders.

Obama set the course for a slow withdrawal from Afghanistan, along with the legitimization of Taliban rule in exchange for the closure of terror camps – the pre-9/11 US strategy.

If Trump wants to take the position that there cannot be legitimate Taliban rule in Afghanistan under his watch, then he will have to put increasing pressure on Islamabad to force greater counter-terror participation.

If the administration is content with the settlement being developed by the US special envoy for Afghanistan – a plan albeit widely unpopular with Congress – then it may be wise to dissolve much of the alliance in favor of broader support of India.

This reflects a much bigger crossroads in the future of US threat analysis: does the administration believe it necessary to remain engaged in widespread counterinsurgency, or is it time to cut losses in favor of a solution to emerging great power woes?