All indications are that the peace talks between the United States and Afghanistan's Taliban have reached their home stretch. The optimism in the most recent remarks by the US Special Representative on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad conveys the impression that an agreement is imminent. The Taliban spokesmen also voiced satisfaction that an understanding with the US has been reached.
While the terms of the agreement remain confidential as at the moment, it is a fair guess that an orderly withdrawal of the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan can be expected. President Trump has been explicit on that score. But lingering doubts remain. After all, long after Trump took such a public stance with respect to Syria, American troops still occupy that country illegally. When it comes to Afghanistan, alibis are galore for an extended US military presence.
The sticking point was the Taliban’s insistence on a total US withdrawal. But there is reason to believe that Pakistan has finessed the Taliban’s obdurate stance and the latter may show flexibility in allowing some sort of US presence to continue. What form it takes remains strictly between Washington and Islamabad.
Without a doubt, the Pentagon regards a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan as useful and necessary as an underpinning of American global strategy, especially its dual containment policy toward Russia and China. The dynamics of the US-Pakistan strategic partnership will depend critically on Islamabad’s role as facilitator. The incipient signs — especially, the tentative resumption of US military aid — are that Washington is satisfied with the level of Pakistan’s cooperation. On the other hand, continued US involvement in Afghanistan serves Pakistan’s interests as well, since the Taliban regime in Kabul will need international assistance to cope with the country’s reconstruction and, secondly, an American presence in the region is particularly useful for Islamabad at present, to push back at India.
As the best-organised Afghan group, the Taliban has a decisive edge over rival groups. Therefore, a Taliban takeover at some point in the very near future is entirely conceivable — arguably, it is only a matter of time. An anti-Taliban resistance such as that of the late nineties is not to be expected. Suffice to say, an Islamist regime based on Sharia Law and enjoying international legitimacy is in the cards.
This would have profound implications for the region as a whole, where Islamist militancy is a hot-button issue. Even if the Taliban doesn’t change course to overtly become part of the global jihadi movement, its triumphal victory over a superpower creates an aura around it that will radiate energy in the region far beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Evidently, there is a lot of apprehension in India already about the likely fallout of Islamist militancy in the Kashmir region, as a near-term scenario.
The US diplomatic strategy to harmonise with the regional states individually during the peace process has worked brilliantly well for American interests. There has been no grand bargain with states in the region as such, and Washington ensured that there was no regional initiative that subsumed its lead role in the Afghan peace process. Even like-minded countries in the region such as Russia and India preferred to work with the US rather than hold each other’s hands or form a regional collective.
At the very core, unsurprisingly, the US regarded only Pakistan as its indispensable partner. This puts Pakistan in a commanding position. Having said that, Pakistan also faces the challenge of balancing its relations with China at a juncture when US-China tensions are cascading by the day.
Russia has pinned hopes on an engagement of Pakistan that would help it wield some influence with a future Taliban regime in Afghanistan and enable it to safeguard its security interests in Central Asia. TO what extent such hopes are realistic, time only will tell. The point is, once the US consolidates its relations with the Taliban regime, US involvement in the region will surge with a vengeance and the roll back of Russian (and Chinese) influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia will be their leitmotif.