Hanging in the balance

January 31, 2021

The Biden administration has announced a review of the peace pact with the Taliban, but asked Zalmay Khalilzad to continue his work

With the new US administration under President Joe Biden finally in office, apprehensions about the Afghan peace process and Pakistan’s role in it are rife at the moment. However, early statements by new US officials have sought to dispel the impression and indicate that the Biden-led government will continue with Trump’s Afghan policy for peace. The quest for Afghan peace might finally turn the traditionally unstable ties between Democrat administrations and Pakistani governments into a strong relationship.

After the historic victory of President Joe Biden, stakeholders of Afghan peace process - Pakistan, Afghan government and the Taliban - were expecting the new administration to restructure the deal or bring in new players. The new US officials’ early gestures and statements have been a surprise to them.

First off, the new administration has told Zalmay Khalilzad, the US negotiator who brokered the deal with the Taliban, to continue with his portfolio under President Biden. Addressing his first official media briefing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We’ve asked him (Khalilzad) to continue the vital work that he’s performing.”

He also said that the new administration would review the accord. “One of the things that we need to understand is exactly what is in the agreements to ensure that we fully understand the commitments that the Taliban have made as well as any commitments that we’ve made,” Blinken said.

Khalilzad’s continuation in the role is being taken as a good gesture by the Taliban, the Afghan government and Pakistan. Born in Afghanistan, Khalilzad is a veteran Republican stalwart. He served as US ambassador to the United Nations, Iraq and Afghanistan under (former) President George W Bush.

Based on his roots and close ties in Afghanistan, the Trump administration had assigned Khalilzad the task of negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban. He completed his job and signed a deal with Taliban in Qatar on February 29. The most important clause of the deal is that the US will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by May 2021. For their part, the Taliban promised that Afghanistan’s territory will not be used by its own or foreign fighters against any country.

The deal provides that all US and NATO troops will leave Afghanistan by May 2021. Currently, 2,500 US soldiers are based in Afghanistan.

Another reason to believe that the US will continue with the peace pact is the old stance of President Biden, who, as vice president in President Obama’s administration had supported the idea of leaving Afghanistan. However, he was in favour of keeping a slim military presence in Afghanistan. If he persists with his idea of limited US military presence, this may not be acceptable to the Taliban.

A memo issued by the US Treasury Department irritated the Taliban. The memo, sent to Pentagon, says, “As of 2020, Al Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection. Al Qaeda capitalises on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support.”

Taliban Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said, “We strongly reject this report. The report has been compiled by partisan and warmongering circles based on false information.”

He said in 2001 when a war broke out in Afghanistan and the subsequent uprisings in parts of the Arab world, members of Al Qaeda and other foreign nationals that had previously sought refuge in Afghanistan returned to their homelands.

“Currently, there are no Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. Neither does there remain a need for any foreign national to live in Afghanistan,” said the spokesperson. “Unfortunately, some circles are seeking the extension of this war imposed on the Afghan nation in pursuit of their interests and malicious objectives. [They] are seeking to corrupt minds and create unwarranted fears with their propaganda. They are sourcing information from warmongering individuals and parties before forwarding it to other departments.” Mujahid reiterated that, “We consider the full implementation of the Doha Agreement a logical solution to the ongoing problem and in the interest of both the American and Afghan people. The Islamic Emirate once again declares that it shall remain committed to all clauses of the Doha Agreement, not allow anyone to pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies from the soil of Afghanistan or build bases here.”

Pakistan can handle the Taliban effectively. However, the US Administration will have to bring the Ghani-led government to accept the agreement. Historically, US-Pakistan relations have seen ups and downs under Democrat administrations. President Biden will be the sixth Democrat president Pakistan is working with. The relationships between the two countries during Democrat administrations has faced several rough patches, including sanctions. However, ties with US under Republican administrations have been comparatively stronger.

On the other hand, the Ashraf Ghani-led Afghan government, apparently unhappy with the US-Taliban Doha Pact, as it was kept out of the dialogue, is now engaged in a dialogue with the Taliban. The Ghani-led government’s anger can be judged from the fact that President Ghani did not meet Khalilzad during his recent trip to Kabul. The Taliban and Afghan delegations met in Doha on January 12 but could not make any breakthrough as both sides were waiting for President Biden to take oath.

On the other hand, the intent of Ghani government can be judged by an article written by Afghanistan’s ambassador in Washington, Roya Rahmani, published in The Washington Post on January 27. She wrote, “Afghanistan is now more of a base than a battlefield for Americans, and their presence is mutually beneficial.” She further wrote, “Similar to US presence in South Korea, Germany and Kuwait, American troops in Afghanistan serve as a stabilising force.”

She called on the US Administration “to hold the Taliban accountable for its egregious violations of the agreement and fully commit to the US-Afghan partnership.” Her op-ed suggested that Afghanistan’s government does not want the US troops to withdraw from its soil.

In this situation, the role of Pakistan will be crucial. Pakistan can handle the Taliban effectively. The US Administration will have to bring the Ghani-led government to the agreement. US-Pakistan relations have seen ups and downs under the Democrat administrations. President Biden will be the sixth Democrat president Pakistan is working with. The relationships between the two countries during Democrats’ rule faced several rough patches, including sanctions. Under Republican administrations the relations remained comparatively smooth.

Most Pakistani diplomats expect the ties between the two states to improve. On August 2, 2020, the-then US presidential candidate, Joe Biden’s foreign policy adviser, Antony Blinken, had said that if elected the Biden administration would raise the issue of Kashmir with India and convey its concerns on a recent Indian law that discriminates against Muslims. Now, President Biden is leading the US Administration and Blinken is the secretary of state.

As far as Pakistan’s role in Afghan peace process is concerned, the Pentagon and the Pakistan Army have been working closely. On the political front, functionaries are engaged in twitter and media diplomacy.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, last week said that Pakistan hoped for greater engagement with the new United States government and urged President Biden to follow up on the ongoing Afghan peace process and US troops’ withdrawal from the country.

On the other hand, according to a statement issued by the military’s media wing, the administration of President Joe Biden has assured Pakistan of continued assistance for the common cause of peace in Afghanistan.

The assurance came during a meeting between Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and acting US Charge d’Affairs to Pakistan Lesslie Viguerie on Friday. Gen Bajwa hoped that Pak-US bilateral relations will be further strengthened under the new administration.

While assuring the country of United States’ continued assistance for the common cause of peace in Afghanistan, Viguerie appreciated Pakistan’s contributions to conflict prevention in the region and its relentless support for the Afghan Peace Process.

Meanwhile, Iran invited a Taliban delegation to Tehran to start negotiations. Taliban’s Deputy Chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Brader led the delegation. The Iranian gesture is being seen as a message to the Biden Administration that Iran too can play a role for Afghan peace.

The writer is a senior journalist, security analyst and teacher. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

Hanging in the balance: Biden administration announces review of peace pact with Taliban