Negotiations leading toward a peaceful solution for a longstanding politically violent conflict is generally the desire of neighboring nations. In the recent past, several terrorist campaigns have ended after rounds of talks resulting in peaceful solutions in countries such as Algeria, Ireland, Colombia, Peru and others. However, peace talks resulting in lasting negotiated settlements are particularly elusive with Islamist terrorist groups. Islamist terrorist groups are typically absolutist and Manichean in their approach and mostly reluctant to hold peace talks with the states through mediators and at times only do that under conditions suitable to their ideological causes or when facing imminent military defeat.
In the case of the Afghan Taliban, the situation is much more complex. There have been rounds of peace talks with the group over the last 15 years, yielding more or less no results. Long campaigns of political violence detrimentally affect countries in close proximity and such is the case for Afghanistan’s eastern neighbor, Pakistan. Whether peace is attained in Afghanistan or not, the results will likely have serious implications for Pakistan.
Current State of Affairs
Peace talks appear to be faltering and there is no military solution in sight. There are 14,000 U.S. troops (down from 100,000 in 2014) plus an additional 8,000 NATO troops still in Afghanistan. U.S. fatalities stand at around 2,500 with 20,000 injuries during the last 17 years of war, and the cost of war in Afghanistan is estimated to be $1 trillion (Al-Jazeera, February 14). Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) still appear to be unprepared, ill-trained, and unlikely to defeat the Islamist insurgents in the near future. In 2018, Afghanistan experienced the highest number of casualties in a single year since 2009 (UNAMA, February 24).
The current state of affairs in Afghanistan does not present a rosy picture. The growing Taliban violence has resulted in massive ANSF casualties and the Taliban controls more territory than at any time since 2001, despite Afghan Taliban-U.S. peace talks recently held in Doha, Qatar. President Donald Trump’s December 2018 announcement of his desire to withdraw troops indicates a major upcoming change in U.S. foreign policy. For some time, it seemed that peace talks were becoming more viable as enthusiastic efforts were made by Zalmay Khalilzad, a seasoned American diplomat and expert negotiator of Afghan descent. But as of March, no concrete conclusion could be drawn.
Implications for Pakistan
Several possible scenarios could be analyzed amid recent peace talks in Afghanistan. Each has significant implications for Pakistan, some positive and some negative.
Despite significant challenges ahead, there is a possibility that peace could be achieved after successful rounds of talks with the Afghan Taliban, resulting in the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2020.
A strong possibility connected to this scenario is the relieving of pressure U.S. forces (through drone strikes and Special Operations) have placed on anti-Pakistan terrorist groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Islamic State-Khorasan—who are hiding in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan. A number of TTP commanders such as Mullah Fazalullah and others have been killed by U.S. strikes and other operations and, similarly, IS-K’s first four Emirs were killed by U.S. forces based in Afghanistan (Dawn, June 23, 2018; NATO, April 15, 2018).
The withdrawal could easily result in the Afghan Taliban, or significant factions of it, breaching the agreement and launching a campaign against the new Afghan regime—potentially causing another collapse of the government. Such a scenario would likely lead to the outbreak of civil war, and chaos reminiscent of what happened in 1990 after the withdrawal of Soviet troops following the Geneva accord signed in 1989. For Pakistan, despite its alleged ties to the Afghan Taliban, this would be a worst-case scenario as it would likely spark an increase of violence in neighboring provinces of Pakistan, the exodus of refugees into Pakistan, massacres, human and women rights violations, all while bolstering al-Qaeda and other foreign Islamist terrorists. It is not unreasonable to consider a scenario in which Afghanistan returns to being a base of operations for international terrorism, including anti-Pakistan groups, as it was before the U.S. invasion in October 2001.
In a less likely scenario, Khalilzad succeeds and there is a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, the reintegration of the Afghan Taliban into wider society, elections, and a new government, resulting in a cessation of violence and the end of safe havens for foreign terrorist groups in Afghanistan. This is a situation that policymakers in Pakistan would love to capitalize on in order to strengthen its own dilapidated economy and rebuild peace.
The chances of the conflict status quo continuing in Afghanistan are likely and that does not suit neighboring Pakistan’s new ambitions. If fighting continues and Afghan Taliban numbers keep rising (currently estimated to be around 50-60,000), the rural areas would eventually fall to Taliban control, leaving behind only urban centers in the Afghan government’s hands. This situation would further weaken the Afghan government and facilitate the rise of militias in every corner of Afghanistan, a situation highly unfavorable for Pakistan.
Another issue apart from these scenarios is that that the success or perceived success of the Afghan Taliban would create a sense of victory among Pakistani Islamist groups, which would be a morale-boost for Islamist terrorist groups operating in Pakistan. Most of the Pakistani Islamist terrorist groups consider the Afghan Taliban to be a role model regime and would likely adopt similar tactics in the event of the Taliban’s success.
The Afghan Taliban are Islamist by virtue of their adherence to the ultra-orthodox Deobandi sect of Islam and are known for their stubborn and inflexible attitudes. They also remain close to al-Qaeda and have never condemned its violence. Hence, it would be much harder for mediators to adjust to their hardline approaches and somehow manage to drive them towards a fulsome, peaceful solution.
In its current state of economic turmoil, Pakistan would benefit from the foreign investments that peace in Afghanistan would encourage. An unstable Afghanistan would further damage Pakistan’s repute. This is perhaps one reason Pakistani policymakers are surprisingly keen to play their part in bringing the Afghan Taliban to peace talks and finding a possible solution for ending this long war. Pakistan needs to play its role for its own sake and efforts must continue for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, though that is not in sight at the moment.