(A transfer case containing the remains of Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman at Dover Air Force Base, Del. who was among 3 American soldiers killed near Bagram base, Afghanistan on April 8, 2019)
Henry Kissinger wouldn’t have approved the way Zalmay Khalilzad, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, handles the Afghan peace talks. Even if Tweeter were in vogue in the late sixties, Kissinger wouldn’t have used it to signal to Hanoi or the Vietcong.
But caught between the “Khalid Operation” — Afghan government’s new security plan — and the Taliban’s riposte Operation Al-Fatha (“victory” in Arabic) — dubbed the “spring offensive” — Khalilzad began tweeting furiously to vent his exasperation.
What emerges from Khalilzad’s serial tweets during April 12-14 is that his negotiations with the Taliban are in a state of drift. Khalilzad blames the Taliban for being “reckless” and “irresponsible” to announce the spring offensive. He claims, “Many Talibs including fighters and some fighters oppose this announcement.”
He maintains that the US and its allies back Kabul’s security plan, but qualifies it saying Washington also seeks “to bring parties to the table to negotiate peace.” Khalilzad urges “all sides… (to) end unnecessary violence, and instead engage in intra-afghan dialogue which leads to negotiations on a political settlement and a road map to end the war this year.” The urgent requirement is for a “comprehensive ceasefire and negotiations leading to a lasting peace.”
The sequence of events in the past fortnight suggests that Kabul has effectively put a spoke in the wheel just as Taliban appeared, finally, to soften its stance and agreed to meet government representatives as part of an Intra-Afghan dialogue. The precipitate announcement of the Khalid Operation on April 2 drew forth a Taliban reaction on April 12 — its spring offensive.
A day later, on April 13, Afghan President Asharf Ghani hit Taliban hard with a sharply-worded statement condemning the spring offensive and vowing that the Afghan forces have been “clearly directed to take counter-measures” to defend the country. The fate of the inter-Afghan dialogue slated to take place in Doha on April 19-21 hangs by a thread.
The Afghan leaders who are enthused by the idea of the intra-Afghan dialogue feel stranded — Hamid Karzai, Haneef Atmar, Atta Noor, Ismail Khan, Younus Qanooni, Mohammad Mohaqiq, etc. (In a statement on Sunday, Karzai expressed displeasure over “Khalid operation”.) In essence, Ghani and his circle — defense minister Assadullah Khalid, interior minister Amrullah Saleh, national security advisor Hamdullah Mohib, etc. — will have one more “fighting season.”
The coming fighting season to be exceptionally violent because a new player has appeared. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is no longer a phantom. Although concentrated presently in the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar bordering Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, ISKP’s regional ambition spans Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan and it takes a special interest in the Af-Pak region. On March 11, ISPK claimed to have undertaken a major operation in Lahore killing Pakistani security personnel and last week in Quetta.
(Afghan security forces line up alleged Islamic State fighters before media, Jalalabad, April 10, 2019)
In this increasingly murky backdrop where the battle lines are increasingly getting blurred, Ghani’s circle is confident that Khalilzad can be blocked from imposing a peace settlement. What counts most will be the support of two regional states — Iran and India. These two countries share Ghani’s angst over an imposed Afghan settlement.
Tehran is furious about the Trump administration’s recent move to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its elite wing the Quds Force as terrorist organisations. The Quds Force leads Tehran’s Afghan strategies. Yet, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened last week that Washington regards the legendary commander of Quds Force, Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani as a terrorist in the same way as the ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.
It is doubtful if Pompeo consulted Khalilzad before threatening to eliminate Soleimani. At any rate, there is going to be a price to pay. An influential Iranian strategic expert close to the IRGC, Saadullah Zarei warned in an interview in the weekend that Iran has many friends in the region and Washington should know that its IRGC designation is going to be hugely consequential.
Zarei added cryptically, “The consequences have already started as we can see that the American forces are now exposed to serious risks in Afghanistan.” Indeed, American soldiers are being targeted more frequently of late.
As for India, the compulsions are more varied. Delhi is on the same page as Ghani in harbouring the grouse that Khalilzad keeps it out of the loop on the Afghan peace talks. Khalilzad of course is playing safe, because any display of camaraderie on his part with Delhi will only antagonise the Pakistani leadership, which won’t do good for his peace mission.
On the other hand, Delhi has invested heavily on Ghani’s circle, who in turn reciprocate with unreserved strategic trust in India’s commitment to push back at Pakistan, something in which they cannot do on own steam. Both estimate that Pakistan is persisting with an insidious strategy to gain a backdoor entry for its protégé, Taliban, in the governing structure in place in Kabul — something Islamabad failed to achieve militarily.
They view with suspicion Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s refrain regarding the need of an Interim Government in Kabul. They assess that Khalilzad is ambivalent about it. India has conveyed its disquiet directly to Washington regarding any move to replace Ghani with an interim government on whatever pretext.
An Indian analyst with links to the security establishment wrote recently that the US “cannot afford to achieve durable peace” in Afghanistan via a settlement that sidelines or bypasses the Ghani Government and India. He warned, “At best, any hurried tactically expedient contrived settlement arrived at by US Special Envoy at Doha with unwarranted compromises may only secure a temporary reprieve and fig-leaf for withdrawal of US Forces from Afghanistan. Such a compromise will not only fail to achieve durable peace in Afghanistan but also inherently carry within itself seeds of renewed conflict and strife in the immediate wake of exit of US Forces from Afghanistan.”
However, what the Indian establishment is not going to articulate openly is that far beyond its concerns regarding Pakistan’s perceived power projection into Afghanistan, there is also the dark and brooding medium and long term scenario that China is “waiting in the wings to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s collusion” once the US forces withdrew. Indeed, Delhi welcomes a permanent US military deployment to Afghanistan, similar to the decades-long American presence in Japan and South Korea.
Without doubt, high-level consultations between Delhi and Washington are needed, given India’s centrality as a pivotal player in the US-conceived Indo-Pacific Security Template. The current preoccupations in Delhi over the general election will get over by May 19, and in the interim, the Indian establishment heaves a sigh of relief that Ghani government has succeeded in slowing down Khalilzad on his tracks.