The Doha-based Taliban negotiators have become disconnected from the Taliban field commander and military leaders. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that these Taliban negotiators will be able to deliver on any long-term commitment to significantly reduce violence or maintain a ceasefire. These negotiators know that any such public commitment to peace would cause an irreparable fragmentation of the Taliban movement, an outcome that the Doha-based Taliban want to avoid at all costs.
And while Afghanistan is no stranger to tragedy, the cutting of U.S. troops by the Trump Administration does not help the situation. It comes at an inopportune time, during a very crucial and tenuous stage in Afghanistan. The country is likely at a tipping point. Unfortunately, the troop reductions appear not to be rooted in any military assessment, but rather based on political partisanship. It will, among other things, embolden the Taliban to give less effort towards any progress at the negotiation table. In addition, the troop reduction further rewards the Pakistani military’s nurturing of extremist groups that play a key role in destabilizing the region in accordance with Pakistan’s geo-strategic aims.
As a result of Pakistan’s double game in the region, several trends can be expected over the coming months.
Firstly, the level of violence and attacks by the Taliban will likely increase in urban areas. This will occur regardless of the alleged commitments that the Taliban has made in Doha. It is likely that ISIS-K will falsely claim “responsibility” for any mass-casualty attacks in urban centers in Afghanistan.
With Pakistan’s approval, the Taliban (though perhaps not publicly) as a tactical step may declare that they are cutting their ties with Al-Qaeda. The Pakistani army or the Taliban may even share actionable intelligence with the U.S. As a result, a few high-ranking Al-Qaeda members might be killed or captured inside Afghanistan. Pakistan’s activities may even lead U.S. officials to believe that Pakistan has now become a reliable counterterrorism partner in the region and thus should be given a greater say on U.S.-Afghan policy. By the time the new team in Washington D.C. sees through the double game, crucial time will have elapsed and crucial U.S. leverage over Pakistan will have disappeared. We have witnessed this cycle now for two decades. It is a key lesson not yet learned by some policymakers in Washington, D.C.
Should President Ghani refuse a new power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban, Biden will most likely conclude that Afghanistan is not worth additional U.S. blood and treasure. Biden, however, may believe that the U.S. needs to maintain a counterterrorism force in the region. This may mean that the U.S. relocates its bases from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and utilizes special forces and drones from bases in Pakistan to counter threats in Afghanistan.
I suspect the Taliban will see such a move as a major signal that the U.S. does not see them, but only Al-Qaeda, as an enemy. Therefore, the Taliban will be emboldened to increase their attacks and to win the war on the battlefield rather than continue any form of negotiations. Unfortunately, the U.S. administration will increasingly see this latest round of instability in Afghanistan as purely an internal Afghan matter, and an issue that only Afghans need to be involved in resolving, even if it means the Taliban take over and reintroduce their draconian measures contrary to any human rights and democratic norms.
Should all the above occur, the conflict in Afghanistan will continue, Pakistan will have an even bigger veto on internal Afghan matters and Afghanistan will be dragged into an even deeper cycle of conflict. This conflict will likely play out in a Syria-like proxy war that will involve the Taliban, Afghan Security Forces, ISIS-K and numerous terror groups that are currently on the State Department Foreign Terrorist Organization list.
These scenarios are made all the more possible by president elect Biden’s views, expressed during a Democratic presidential debate earlier this year. He stated, “With regards to Afghanistan, I was totally against the whole notion of nation building…. There’s no possibility to unite that country, no possibility at all of making it a whole country. But it is possible to see they’re not able to launch more attacks.”
Peace and stability will occur neither via Islamabad nor via the Taliban’s Quetta Shura. The road to Afghan peace and stability is through ensuring that moderate political leaders in Afghanistan, the ones that have social capital with their constituencies in various parts of Afghanistan, are empowered in the peace process.
Rahmatullah Nabil is an Afghan politician and former head of the National Directorate of Security in Afghanistan, the country’s main intelligence agency, and was a presidential Candidate in the 2019 Election.