Crucial Months Ahead for Afghanistan | Opinion

Now is a crucial moment for the ongoing Afghan peace talks. While the new U.S. administration forms its national security team and implements a policy review on Afghanistan, including assessing the prospects for progress in the peace talks, Pakistan will not let the peace process drop from the attention of the new president. For the past 20 years, Pakistan has skillfully played both sides in the war on terror, during both Republican and Democratic administrations. It is in Pakistan's interest to maintain forward progress for the U.S.-Taliban deal in Doha, despite the flaws of the deal.

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.

Second, outgoing U.S. special representative to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has every incentive to deliver the new national security team an overly optimistic briefing on the U.S.-Taliban deal, potentially creating further distortions on this issue. Given the realities and challenges of the current transition in the U.S., it will be months before the new team in Washington assesses whether to retain or replace Khalilzad. Meanwhile, the negative trajectory of internal events in Afghanistan linked to Khalilzad's flawed peace deal with the Taliban will continue. It will be much more difficult to deal with those challenges later on and any delays will leave the U.S. with very few options.

Afghanistan peace talks
(L to R) US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Qatar's Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohamad Bin Abdel Rahman Al-Thani and Mutlaq bin Majid al-Qahtani, the special envoy of the Qatari Foreign Minister for Terrorism and Mediation in the Settlement of Disputes, attend the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha on September 12, 2020. KARIM JAAFAR / AFP/Getty

Should this delay in addressing Afghan policy issues occur, it is likely that president elect Biden will pressure the Taliban to sever their ties with Al-Qaeda, and in return the Taliban will demand U.S. support for the formation of an interim government in Afghanistan. Due to the failures of the current Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, to form a national consensus on peace, it is very likely that influential political figures in Afghanistan will support the demands of the Taliban. Initially, Biden's national security team may seek to prevent the collapse of the Afghan regime. However, when they realize that the regime in Kabul continues to be highly unpopular and is not creating more stability and peace, it is highly likely that the Biden administration will increase pressure on Ghani to be more open to accommodating Taliban demands.

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."

The Soviet Union entered Afghanistan unilaterally, by force, and left behind the legacy of a destructive war (though the Soviets blamed the Afghans for all the destruction). The U.S. legacy in Afghanistan need not be the mirror of the Soviet Union's. Actively subcontracting the future of Afghanistan to Pakistan is a recipe for further disaster, as is empowering the Taliban to return and seek to resurrect their Islamic Emirate. Both of these scenarios will lead to a regional proxy war that could turn Afghanistan into the next Syria, but on steroids.

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.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.