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With US support, the Taliban are en route to political legitimacy

TOP NEWS-ENG-03-04-2020

The fact that the US continues to struggle to find a way out of Afghanistan through a negotiated political settlement among the various stakeholders in the country, shows that its pursuit of peace was not based on a well-thought-out plan. 

Ironically, while the US was able to bring the Taliban, its main foe in Afghanistan, to the negotiating table and even sign a peace deal with them, it has not been able to make its ally, the Ashraf Ghani regime in Kabul, amenable to a political settlement. 

Kabul has, in fact, become one of the biggest hurdles in the way of a political settlement in Afghanistan. 

Read Also: Ultimate gainers of Afghan power struggle will be US and Taliban

As I pointed out in last week’s column for SAM, things in Afghanistan may eventually come down to the Taliban and the US becoming the biggest beneficiaries of the conclusion of the war. Last week’s developments showed an increasing possibility of this eventuality as the US and Kabul failed to come to terms on establishing a ‘unity government’ and paving the path for implementing the US-Taliban deal. 

The failure has already led the US slashing US$ 1 billion in aid to Afghanistan this year, and potentially another US$ 1 billion in 2021. The US, of course, is pushing the leading Afghan factions, led by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, to start a dialogue that could, in turn, lead to a dialogue with the Taliban. The ultimate aim of the US is to secure a political settlement that would not only include the Taliban as a political partner but also give the US enough leeway to remain involved in the country to meet its broader regional interest in Central Asia. It is therefore vital for the US to become a central player in Afghanistan. 

After failing to convince Ghani and Abdullah to form a ‘unity government’, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, went to Doha and held a meeting with the Taliban, underscoring the need for a full implementation of their deal. The meeting was certainly meant to be a message to Kabul about the increasing political connection between the US and the Taliban, and an ever-increasing possibility of completely side-lining Kabul. 

Let’s not forget that a number of other Afghan political leaders, particularly from the opposition, are amenable to a dialogue with the Taliban and their inclusion in the political mainstream. 

In the wake of the continuing rift in Kabul, the US and the Taliban may find it politically plausible to encourage new political alliances in Afghanistan comprising ‘like-minded’ political groups. 

This process will eventually force some political factions out of the picture and will also clear the way for the Taliban’s domination of Afghanistan, a situation the US may eventually accept if a Taliban-dominated Kabul is sensitive enough to the core interests of the US. The US will of course also want to place itself as the guarantor of peace and remain the key interlocutor. 

The above developments strongly indicate that the US does not only have a Plan-B but that the Taliban have a completely different role in it. The US State Department statement announcing a cut in aid clearly sounded its intention not to undertake military operations against the Taliban which are motivated by political objectives. 

“We have made clear to the (Kabul) leadership that we will not back security operations that are politically motivated, nor support political leaders who order such operations and those who advocate or support a parallel government”, Pompeo said. 

He added that the US has no intention of changing its withdrawal plan, indicating that an eventual Taliban takeover of Kabul will neither be opposed nor militarily resisted. 

That Pompeo went straight to Doha from Kabul shows that the message was not only about US commitment to the deal but also that those trying to sabotage the deal are already in its bad-books and would not be allowed to play their game aimed at defeating the hard-bargained deal with the Taliban. 

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If Kabul continues to resist, it will be crippled without US support. Kabul’s resort to the CIA-trained militias to ‘enforce’ its writ will only turn the political fight into an ethnic one, politicizing ethnic fault-lines not only on the political front but also in the military. 

Infighting in Afghanistan, one that excludes the Taliban as a party to conflict, will help the Taliban project itself as a party of peace and those in Kabul as a party of conflict. 

An eventual Taliban takeover in such a scenario will not only grant them domestic legitimacy but international legitimacy as well. Most of Afghanistan’s neighbors namely, Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russia, are well connected with the Taliban and would not have objections to their regime, although they would want them to earn electoral legitimacy as well. Seeing the future ahead, the Taliban are turning themselves into a ‘political force.’