by Fatemeh Aman
President Trump’s abrupt cancellation of planned peace talks at Camp David between the Taliban and the Afghan government as part of a U.S. withdrawal plan seems to have had the immediate effect of ousting his national security adviser, John Bolton. But the larger implications of the latest foreign-policy surprise, particularly for prospects for a peace accord and the calculations of regional powers are still being assessed. For help in doing so, LobeLog called on its South Asia expert, Fatemeh Aman, to answer some pertinent questions.
Q) Trump seems to have suspended, if not cancelled, peace negotiations between the Taliban and the United States. Assuming that he doesn’t abruptly change his mind over the next week, what impact do you think this will have on the various parties in Afghanistan?
A) You correctly assume that President Trump may change his mind again. Some people in Afghanistan are relieved that the meeting and peace talks have been canceled or postponed. However, I doubt that anybody believes there is an effective solution to the deadlock in Afghanistan. To be honest, no one in Afghanistan or abroad has any great alternative to the current situation. Afghanistan is a very complex tribal society and the violence there is not going away any time soon.
That said, the manner in which Trump has given legitimacy to the Taliban has been a big mistake, if not dangerous. Bringing leaders of the group to Camp David, with or without representatives of the Afghan government, would have been the worst example of diplomacy for conflict resolution! And then canceling the meeting, with the justification that a U.S. soldier was killed by a recent Taliban suicide bombing, was even worse. It was not the first time that the Taliban imposed violence upon Afghan citizens and U.S. personnel. In fact, since the so-called peace talks started, the Taliban has intensified its violence. It is a well-known fact that the Taliban have attempted to increase their leverage ahead of possible peace talks with the Afghan government by escalating their violence and expanding the territory under their control.
Meeting the Taliban in this manner would have been the second major mistake made by the U.S. The first one was when it branded the Taliban a terrorist group the same way al-Qaeda was branded a terrorist group. Unlike al-Qaeda, Taliban fighters did not follow a strict interpretation of Islam. Not all of them were ideologically motivated. The Taliban was indigenous to Afghanistan and not interested in global jihad. There were major differences between the Taliban and foreign insurgents such as al-Qaeda and there are plenty of differences between them and the Islamic State-Khurasan (IS-K) now.
But back to Trump’s unpredictability: back in December 2018, I wrote for Lobelog: “The Trump administration has sent conflicting messages regarding Afghanistan in the past. Pulling troops out of Afghanistan could be another one, and this decision could be subject to change. As the Taliban may have figured out by now, one element of this administration’s policy-making overshadows everything else: its unpredictability.”
I think by now all U.S. partners and foes alike understand the unpredictability factor in the Trump administration.
In this case, cancelling the invitation to the Taliban leadership may have been positive. However, it also put credibility of any agreement, or of future talks and negotiations with the United States, at stake. Imagine anyone in the future starting serious negotiations with the U.S. when they could be informed by a tweet that the meeting has been canceled!
The impact of the meeting and peace talks being canceled is not huge in Afghanistan. Some Afghans are relieved, especially those who draw parallels between the former Soviet Union abandoning the pre-Taliban government of Muhammed Najibullah Ahmadzai. So the Taliban’s violence could continue, perhaps with a higher level of brutality. There is, however, another possibility: If cancelling the negotiations and the meeting was Trump’s tactic, it may work if the Taliban conclude that increasing violence will not have the desired result.
Q) What are reactions of Pakistan and India to the peace talks and their cancellation?
Among all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, Pakistan was the most active and supportive of the peace talks. Pakistan saw them as an opportunity to prove that it wants stability for Afghanistan, though Pakistani involvement also made Afghans more suspicious of the entire process. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan put his credibility on the line and apparently was personally involved.
If there is a lesson from all this, it is that, contrary to common belief, the Taliban is not entirely Pakistan’s puppet. The assumption that, if Pakistan pressures the Taliban to make peace, it will happen overnight, is based on the theory that the Taliban is a homogeneous and a well-organized group. In fact, based on the recent regroupings and changes in the Taliban’s leadership, there are major differences within the group. This means that these peace talks, initiated by the United States, even if successful, may not have translated into peace and an end of violence.
Perhaps the happiest regional power now that the negotiations have been cancelled is India. One major reason is Pakistan’s active role in the talks. India and Pakistan traditionally have supported different Afghan groups, especially during the Afghan civil war. While many Afghans are suspicious of Pakistan, they view India positively. India did not want to get involved with the Taliban. One reason may have been that they consider the Taliban puppets of Pakistan. India has invested broadly in Afghanistan, and increasing violence is threatening or halting India-supported projects in Afghanistan. However, they don’t expect peace and stability to return to Afghanistan if Pakistan has too much influence.
Q) How about other regional players such as Iran?
A) Iran, Russia, and China—while very interested in stabilizing Afghanistan—were suspicious of the U.S. peace talks with the Taliban. In their view, the negotiations lacked transparency. These three countries are worried about the insurgencies stemming from Afghanistan spilling into their territories. Iran, as an immediate neighbor to Afghanistan, is the most concerned. It is taking the IS-K threat very seriously. Their concerns involve both an Afghanistan with the Taliban in power and an Afghanistan involved in a civil war or with a major IS-K presence.
There are ideological differences between Iran and the Taliban. However, Iran was even willing to have diplomatic relations with the Taliban when they came to power in the 1990s. It was the Taliban that did not want to have Iran as a friend. A broad presence of the Salafi Wahhabi groups in Afghanistan supported by the Taliban made friendly relations between Iran and Afghanistan almost impossible. The Taliban is different from the 1990s. They have morphed into a multi-faction group with internal differences. However, there is no guarantee for Iran that once the Taliban is in power, they will not invite Iran’s ideological al-Qaeda-like enemies into Afghanistan again. This is especially true if Afghanistan’s economic and political situation is as grim as it was when the Taliban previously ruled the country—which was one of the reasons, perhaps, that they let Bin Laden and his wealth into Afghanistan.
Q) Does Iran want peace negotiations over Afghanistan’s future at all?
A) Iran is also worried about an influx of Afghan refugees into Iran should the Taliban violently take over the country and oust the Afghan government. A civil war in Afghanistan is bad news for the entire region and could be a repeat of the bloody past when each regional player supported different armed Afghan groups. So they want talks with the Taliban, but in their mind it has to be transparent and, preferably, with some seats at the negotiating table reserved for them.
If Iran’s rivals want to threaten Iran or foment insurgencies inside Iran, Afghanistan is a very effective place from which to do that. There are also threats of insurgencies from Iran’s Western borders, as evidenced by Iran’s recent attempts to reach out to Kurdish groups in neighboring Iraq.
Q) What do you think were the calculations behind inviting representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government (including Ghani, apparently), to Camp David presumably to conclude the bilateral agreement and launch direct talks between the Taliban and the government. Could that have been just for another photo op?
A) Well, to be honest, I don’t see the move being well thought out. But you never know! I think somebody may have had this genius idea of having the Taliban in the United States to portray the president as a master of conflict resolution. As we have seen, it was the same with North Korea. The impression would have been good for the president’s base, seeing him as a man with the power to bring bloody rivals together. That would have helped him.
Q) One would expect now for the Taliban to become even more aggressive on the battlefield in light of the at least momentary failure of Khalilzad’s long-standing efforts?
A) We will have to wait and see. Mr. Trump may have used the last minute cancelation as a tactic to tell the Taliban that there won’t be any leverage through increasing violence. If the Taliban think they should not burn all bridges, they won’t increase the violence. But as I indicated earlier, no one knows how organized the Taliban is as a group. By that I mean the Taliban’s leadership may decide to limit violence, perhaps not to kill the peace talks entirely. It remains to be seen how much control they have over their own operations.
Q) What do you think the group’s calculation will be? And, will the apparent fact that its leadership had agreed to go to DC be a public relations gain for it within Afghanistan or a loss?
A) The incentive for the Taliban would have been legitimacy and a show of power. They don’t, of course, have to abide by any agreement they might have reached from that meeting. It would have enabled the Taliban to be seen equal in legitimacy to the government of Afghanistan. It would have been a major win for them. They did not concede, they did not obligate themselves to a ceasefire while talks were ongoing, they did not have to change anything they were doing before the negotiations started. That would have empowered them. On the other hand, it would have been a major embarrassment for the Afghan government. It would have portrayed Ghani as weak and puppet-like, especially if the Taliban did not commit to any agreement with the government.
Q) And how will it affect IS’s fortunes in Afghanistan?
A) A deal could have encouraged many insurgents, who are not fighting based on ideological conviction, to either join the Taliban or view the group as the most powerful alternative. Perhaps some local IS-K sympathizers would have begun seeing a better future with the Taliban than with IS-K.
Q) Do you believe that Trump cancelled the talks because of all the military and foreign policy establishment’s pushback over the past few weeks? (I know it’s difficult to get inside his mind.)
A) Yes, and especially those bipartisan experts who were directly involved in Afghanistan.
Q) How do you assess prospects for a) the election scheduled to take place in Afghanistan and b) for peace talks to resume with the U.S. and/or start with the government?
A) The election is going to be even more difficult to hold than before. Taliban violence can continue, perhaps with a higher level of brutality. This will not be an attractive election since a major chunk of Afghanistan is under the control of the Taliban.
Q) If you were Zalmay Khalilzad, how would you be feeling at this moment?
A) I would feel upset. He did what he was asked to do. Note that the prospect of sitting down with the Taliban was almost impossible until recently. No matter which side you are on, Khalilzad has done an effective job in the past regarding Afghanistan. He helped form the first post-Taliban government and the first election in Afghanistan. That doesn’t make him a master of Afghan negotiations though. Today’s Afghanistan is very different from the 2000s. The Taliban is now a major and very powerful armed group with broad territories under their control. So I think Khalilzad put his own credibility in this game. He did a good job for what he was asked to do.