How Can Blinken’s Bold Plan for Afghanistan Succeed?

Tim Willasey-Wilsey, Cipher Brief Expert

Tim Willasey-Wilsey is a Cipher Brief Expert on Afghanistan and a visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London and a former senior British diplomat. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent those of any institution.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — The US plan for Afghanistan has much to recommend it; notably the decision to involve the regional powers. The weaknesses relate to taking Taliban and Pakistani undertakings on trust without credible means of enforcement. But there may be ways of avoiding this risk by allowing the Taliban to establish themselves in Kandahar on a transitional basis.

The 3-page letter and 8-page draft peace agreement which United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently sent to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani are works of remarkable directness. They reflect a sense of urgency. Blinken speaks of the need to ‘jump-start’ the peace process and of the option of the United States withdrawing all its troops by 1st May. That urgency derives both from President Biden’s wish to ‘end endless wars’ but also to maximise any advantage from his recent assumption of office.

For Ghani and his clever but combative Vice President Amrullah Saleh, the letter came as a shock. They had interpreted Biden’s review of Afghan policy as indicating a determination to restore conditionality to a peace process which the Taliban had repeatedly flouted with apparent impunity. Instead, the letter makes clear that Blinken wants the Afghan government to change its attitude. In a tone remarkably short on diplomatic niceties it indicates from the very first line that the United States regards Ghani as just one of Afghanistan’s leaders and influencers. It names Abdullah Abdullah (The Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation), former President Hamid Karzai and the veteran Islamist warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf as others.

The message is blunt. The United States wishes to see a peace agreement.   Afghan disunity “must not be allowed to sabotage the opportunity before us”. In a final paragraph which cannot be seen as anything but a threat, Blinken not only mentions the option of US troop withdrawal by 1st May but adds that “even with the continuation of financial assistance” from the US, he fears rapid Taliban territorial gains.

The language of the draft peace agreement is sensibly designed to provoke few objections from the two sides. In the design of the key institutions of the transitional ‘Peace Government’ Washington is proposing a 50:50 sharing of power between the Taliban and the current Afghan government with the President or nominee having a casting vote. It stipulates that the interim government must have “a meaningful inclusion of women”. A State Leadership Council will ensure that representatives from both sides will consult on matters of national importance. A Constitutional Commission would then draft a new constitution for approval by a Loya Jirga (a traditional Afghan Grand Council of elders) before elections. All the while, a ceasefire would be in force under the scrutiny of a Ceasefire Commission and an International Monitoring Mission. All these measures would conform to a pre-determined timetable yet to be agreed.

A sceptic could be forgiven for thinking this plan wholly unrealistic. Even the current Afghan government has been unable to manage a successful election since 2009, and that was without the participation of the Taliban. However, Blinken’s potential game-changer is the involvement of key regional players; China, Russia, Iran, India and Pakistan under United Nations auspices and with the potential involvement of Turkey, if only as a host at this stage.

All of these countries wish to see peace in Afghanistan and a stable Afghan government. China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan are also eager to see US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan soon. Some will want additional assurances; China that Uighur militants cannot find refuge in Afghanistan; Russia that opium and heroin routes to the north are interdicted and Iran that the Hazara Shiite minority is protected and that Baluchi militants be expelled. Only India will worry about the US departure and the potential for Pakistan to become the dominant power in Afghanistan.

Little wonder, therefore, that Zalmay Khalilzad (the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation) and General Austin Scott Miller (Commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan) visited Islamabad this week to confer with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Bajwa. Bajwa is increasingly becoming the dominant figure in Pakistan after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent political woes. It was Bajwa who was behind the unexpected ceasefire agreement with India last week, following a number of conciliatory speeches towards India in February. Cynics wonder at the timing of the speeches which began just after Biden’s inauguration. Nonetheless, what Khalilizad needs from Bajwa is a firm undertaking that Pakistan will support his plan and not allow the Taliban to renege on the deal once in Kabul.

Here is the one glaring weakness in the plan: the lack of verification and enforcement. Many countries (such as Turkey, Malaysia and the Nordic nations) may be willing to take part in an international monitoring mission but no country will be willing to take on a role which could lead to protracted conflict. The Afghan government allowing the Taliban into Kabul, even as part of a Peace Government, represents an existential risk if that agreement breaks down or the Taliban were to renege on its terms. It would take a battle like Fallujah (2004) or Mosul (2017) to expel them from the city and no nation or international body has the appetite (and possibly not even the capability) to perform that role.

Saleh will advise Ghani not to take Taliban or Pakistani promises on trust. Instead, Ghani may decide to call Washington’s bluff. He may doubt that Washington is really willing to abandon Afghanistan on 1st May with the risk of a rapid Taliban victory jeopardising all the hard-won advances in areas such as women’s rights and counterterrorism over the past 20 years. The spectre of Al Qaida re-establishing camps in Afghanistan would surely be too much for Biden and Blinken.

However, Ghani would be wiser to engage with Blinken to build upon his plan and make it more workable. One idea would be for a more devolved solution for Afghanistan as an intermediate measure by which the Taliban would be invited to establish themselves as the civil government in Kandahar city and surrounding provinces as part of a phased confidence building process with an intention to lead towards mutual reduction (and eventual integration) of armed forces, the preparation of a new constitution, national elections and the formation of a national government over, say, a 3 to 5-year period under United Nations auspices. This would be a tough sell to both Bajwa and the Taliban, but they too need to share some of the risk.

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