The decision by the major protagonists of the war in Afghanistan to suspend hostilities during the Eid Al Fitr festival is a symbolic victory for multilateral diplomacy. Whether or not three days of prospective peace promised by the Afghan Taliban are grounds for optimism about America’s longest-ever war is entirely another matter.
The short reprieve – a reciprocal gesture after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani promised an eight-day ceasefire – is a milestone in the conflict, which began nearly 17 years ago after the erstwhile Taliban regime refused to hand over the Al Qaeda leaders responsible for the September 11 attacks on the US.
Viewed through the lens of cautious optimism, the unprecedented development is a tipping point which could create momentum for the revival of the 2015 peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
That initiative failed because of the untimely announcement of the prior death of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar by the faction of Afghanistan’s National Unity Government, led by chief executive Abdullah Abdullah. The success of the Eid ceasefire would depend on the political will of not only the warring parties but also the ability of their respective leaders to rein in hardliners opposed to a negotiated settlement.
If adhered to, the ceasefire would create some grounds for trust in a war zone notorious for the duplicity of its players, domestic and foreign. If the ceasefire fails or does not eventually yield a sustainable process of dialogue, it would greatly exacerbate tensions between the US and regional powers vying for influence in Afghanistan.
The US is looking for plausible grounds to declare its renewed involvement in combat operations successful to the extent that they have forced the Taliban to talk to Kabul. Ultimately, the Trump administration wants to end American military involvement in Afghanistan because it is domestically unpopular and extremely expensive. But if denied a notional victory, Washington would shift the blame for its failure on to Afghanistan’s neighbours, with destabilising repercussions for the region.
Long-time Taliban backer Pakistan is already on the receiving end of a growing list of unilateral US sanctions and punitive actions at multilateral forums. The Paris-based Financial Action Task Force of nations working to prevent terrorist financing and money laundering will later this month decide whether to place Pakistan on its “grey” or “black” watchlists. If the US-led decision is to go with the severe black option, the consequences for Pakistan’s healthily growing economy would be profound.
Iran and Russia are also on the Trump administration’s radar for allegedly supplying weapons to the Taliban. As targets for unilateral US sanctions and suspicious of its motives for extending Nato involvement in Afghanistan, both countries would derive vengeful satisfaction from a humiliating exit for American forces.
However, the participants of the great game acknowledge such an outcome would be potentially disastrous for all. The longer the war in Afghanistan drags on, the more likely it will lead to the fracturing of the hitherto consolidated opposing side into factions led by warlords who thrive on chaos.
This would work very much to the advantage of ISIS, which has used the intensification of the war since the aborted 2015 peace process to establish and extend its presence in Afghanistan. It has drawn together defectors from the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and Afghan Taliban to establish easily defendable bases in four provinces of Afghanistan and has used them to mount increasingly ferocious terrorist campaigns on urban centres in Afghanistan and Pakistan, notably Kabul and Quetta.
Given more time and space, ISIS would relocate leadership figures and increasing numbers of fighters from the lost battlegrounds of the Middle East and North Africa. They would include Arab and central Asian militants with prior experience of fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who earlier defected from Al Qaeda because its actions in the region have been constrained by its oath of fealty to the Taliban leadership. If allowed to proliferate, ISIS would become an increasingly attractive brand for opportunist Taliban commanders and criminally inclined warlords currently fighting on behalf of the Afghan government.
China, which has led multilateral diplomatic efforts since December to bring together domestic and regional competitors in Afghanistan, has rightly argued that time is of the essence.
The greater intensity of the war has fuelled humanitarian problems in Afghanistan, making stabilisation efforts a bigger challenge than ever. The proportion of Afghans displaced by fighting has reached alarming levels. The situation is set to worsen because of a debilitating drought which has struck much of the impoverished country.
Alternatively, confidence-building measures such as the Eid ceasefire could create a win-win situation enabling political players and the civilian population alike to benefit from the creation of energy and trade corridors through Afghanistan.
The US has desired the establishment of natural gas pipelines from Central Asia to the subcontinent since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now China wants Afghanistan to act as a hub for parallel silk routes extending south from Central Asia through Pakistan and the Caucasus. India, too, is seeking trade access into Central Asia through Afghanistan.
After the September 11 attacks, a convergence of interests facilitated the creation of a new Afghan government so a negotiated settlement is possible, if still a distant and unlikely prospect. Inevitably, progress would depend on whether Afghanistan’s politicians, whether elected or insurgent, can overcome their historic propensity to cut off their noses to spite their faces.
Tom Hussain is a journalist and political analyst in Islamabad