US-Taliban talks: Great game redux in Afghanistan

Written By: Wajahat Qazi
Srinagar Updated: Jan 18, 2019, 12:57 PM(IST)

File photo: Taliban walk as they celebrate ceasefire in Ghanikhel district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan June 16, 2018. Photograph:( Reuters )

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The jostling and jockeying between China, Russia and the United States will, in all likelihood, mean that Afghanistan will become an arena for these powers.

Against the backdrop of the retrenching United States, which is whittling down its commitments and retreating inward, the country ‘s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has arrived in Pakistan for a fresh round of talks with top civil and military officials. 

Khalilzad is expected to seek Islamabad’s help to convince the Taliban to return to the negotiating table to end the seventeen-year-old Afghan war. One context to “suing for peace”, so to speak, in Afghanistan, is the United States’ withdrawal from Syria and laying conditions in the Middle East that suggest that the country is taking recourse to what is called “offshore balancing” in the region.

The major inference that can be drawn here is that the United States no longer wants to be the world’s “policeman” or, in other words, hegemon. The country is gradually veering toward quasi-isolationism and focusing on what the Trump administrations deems its “core interests”. 

This, in the main, explains to a large extent the United States’ Syrian withdrawal and attempts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The country no longer has the appetite to take on militarily a resurgent Taliban which now appears to hold the aces in Afghanistan
In the equations that accrue from conditions that obtain in the region and in the United States, Pakistan assumes significance, given the country’s influence and leverage over the Taliban. The question is: will the United States’ new approach work?

The answer lies in the realm of probabilities. That the Taliban is a force to reckon with now is to state the obvious. But, from a military perspective, and a hypothetical negotiating scenario, given its primacy in the conflict and the fact that the United States, a “wounded hegemon” wants to retreat against the backdrop of a review of its foreign policy and diminishing absorptive capacity for war, why would Taliban’s  strategists want to negotiate? There is no reason for them to do so because, in one way or the other, its “winner take all for the Taliban”.

It is here that Pakistan’s role becomes important yet again. 

The country is in the midst of a balance of payments crisis which has far-reaching consequences and implications for its economy. The CPEC has run into assorted troubles and is not yielding the desired returns at the moment. Amidst this economic uncertainty and grave issues thereof, Pakistan has to turn to the IMF and thereby the United States. The conundrums and dilemmas that flow from this condition might make Pakistan amenable to use its influence over the Taliban to negotiate with the United States. If this scenario comes to pass, then the Taliban might yield and even form the next government in Afghanistan.

From a grand geopolitical perspective, this would constitute a defeat for the United States whose animating premise to attack Afghanistan after September 11 was to “cleanse” the country of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But, now with Taliban ascendant, and the United States seeking to negotiate with it, the country has obviously failed in its objectives.

Against this backdrop, what general lessons can be drawn both about foreign policy and security?

First, foreign policy is about or should be about aligning means with ends. The United States, after September 11, in its “wars of choice” in Afghanistan and Iraq, driven by unipolarity induced hubris, appeared to elide over this cardinal insight. The misalignment between means and ends meant that it got involved in open-ended, long drawn-out wars from which it is attempting a messy exit. Complemented by structural trends and developments, these wars and other thematic issues have led to a different system polarity wherein China, Russia and the United States are the major contenders in international relations and politics. The United States is neither alone at the pinnacle of power nor does it have the ability to convert power into influence. 

All this has implications for and on Afghanistan. The jostling and jockeying between China, Russia and the United States will, in all likelihood, mean that Afghanistan will become an arena for these powers. Or, in other words, the country, also known as the “graveyard of empires” is all set for a “new Great Game”. This, more than anything else, will be the abiding legacy of the blighted country.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

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