The Afghan national security advisor Hamdullah Mohib, while on a visit to Washington, tore into the US peace talks with Taliban in remarks to the American media on Thursday. Mohib alleged that US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad is keeping the Afghan government in Kabul in the dark about the negotiations with the Taliban and that he’s plotting to replace President Ashraf Ghani.
Mohib alleged that Pakistan is dictating the trajectory of the US-Taliban negotiations and warned that there can be no peace until Islamabad ended its support for ‘non-state actors’.
The charges are indeed very serious and it is unlikely that Mohib spoke without Ghani’s approval. Mohib is Ghani’s hand-picked security aide, the fountainhead of Afghan intelligence and is wired into the Washington Beltway, where he previously served as ambassador. The US state department called in Mohib and apparently gave him a dressing down.
That there is friction between Khalilzad and Ghani has been known for some time. Basically, there is much resistance among the Afghan elite against the US strategy to take Pakistan’s help to engage Taliban in direct negotiations and chalk out a settlement that mainstreams the insurgents.
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Things have lately reached a point of no return, now that the crucial next phase of negotiations at Doha is due where the agenda includes intra-Afghan dialogue and ceasefire leading to an interim power-sharing arrangement in Kabul replacing the Ghani government.
Meanwhile, there are interest groups within the Afghan elite who either fear retrenchment or simply do not accept reconciliation with the Taliban. There is indeed widespread resentment among Afghans toward Pakistan’s blatant projection of power into their country through decades. In sum, a coalescing of anti-Taliban, anti-Pakistan sentiments is taking place.
Ghani himself has never hidden his antipathy toward Islamabad for its interference in Afghan affairs and of late has been reaching out to these anti-Taliban, anti-Pakistan groups within the Afghan elite. He feels annoyed that Washington is not insisting on the Taliban holding talks with the Afghan government, but has instead harmonised with the Pakistani-Russian idea of an ‘intra-Afghan dialogue’ where the Afghan government can only be a participant like myriad other Afghan groups — and not as the Taliban’s principal interlocutor.
Having said that, Ghani would also know that Khalilzad who enjoys the backing of the US foreign and security establishment, is by no means a pushover. In principle, the US can withdraw support from Ghani and make a horrible example of him but in the current fluidity, that will open a Pandora’s box and may trigger events over which Washington will have no control. With such a big US and NATO military deployment in Afghanistan, it is out of the question that the Trump administration would make any precipitate moves which might create a power vacuum in Kabul.
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On the other hand, President Trump wants the troop withdrawal to begin, which was also his campaign pledge in the 2016 election. Fundamentally, the Americans may have underestimated the strong undercurrents of Afghan nationalism. Ghani suspects that the Pakistani game plan is to ultimately create conditions for an outright Taliban takeover in Kabul. There have been ample signals that he is digging in.
Suffice to say, the spectre of an Afghan quagmire is haunting the Americans. An orderly American / NATO withdrawal is possible only on the basis of a settlement with the Taliban. But Ghani and his camp insist on an ‘Afghan-led’, ‘Afghan-controlled’ peace process — that is, direct talks between the government and the Taliban. The US’ capacity to leverage Ghani is steadily diminishing.
There are hardline militia factions who stoutly oppose any power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban and are horrified at the prospect of Pakistani hegemony over Afghanistan. They may opt for a trial of strength through force. In the circumstances, there is always the danger of a coup and usurpation of power, which of course no one wants to talk about.
The role of regional powers will be crucial in the coming period. Pakistan and Russia have a special role to play here. Both countries harbour an adversarial mindset vis-a-vis Ghani. Clearly, Pakistan and Russia are increasingly moving in tandem to create conditions for a transition in Kabul that maximises their influence. Russia has pockets of influence among the anti-Pakistani Afghan factions — for instance, former president Hamid Karzai or former NSC Hanif Atmar and erstwhile Northern Alliance leaders and so on — which can work favourably for the advancement of Pakistani interests.
Equally, Russia hopes to gain out of its links to the Taliban, which Pakistan has helped to promote, in a future regime in Kabul. Of course, both Russia and Pakistan have troubled relations with the US and will be beneficiaries of any diminution of American prestige and influence in the region. It will be an understatement to say that in the New Cold War conditions, Moscow wouldn’t mind if the US and NATO are forced to exit from the Hindu Kush in disgrace and defeat.
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