“By all accounts, the United States and the Afghan Taliban are on track to reach a deal by year’s end.”
These are the beginning words in a Feb. 7, 2019, article by Allison Fredrika in “Geopolitical Futures.” They are amazing words to read. U.S. participation has gone on for nearly 20 years. It has become an interminable conflict, costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, according to some sources, if you figure the human costs for long-term medical care and the borrowed money that must be paid back with interest.
Both the U.S. and the Taliban are worn out and are looking for a face-saving way to end the war. There are other players: Russia, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan, who will try to influence the outcome.
Afghanistan’s strategic location makes it a buffer zone between Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia. Many great nations have seen themselves defeated there. In what has been called “The Great Game,” the Russian and British Empires competed in a decades-long contest for control of India. The British Empire lost an army of 10,000 to Afghan fighters in 1842. They fought a more successful war between 1878 and 1880. These wars convinced the many divided tribes to distrust foreign powers occupying their nation.
The Soviet Union lost a humiliating war there from 1979 to 1985, costing them 15,000 dead plus thousands more wounded, and 2 million Afghan casualties. That war helped to topple the Soviet Union.
Today, according to Fredrika, the war has reached a stalemate. Both the Taliban and the U.S. want to cut their losses and end the conflict. Neither side wants to admit to a stalemate, so both sides are willing to negotiate an honorable end. An agreement in principle was reached in late January in Qatar. The U.S. agreed to withdraw all but a token force. The Taliban agreed to keep groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State from using Afghanistan as a staging base for attacks against the West.
The Afghan government will be brought in after the agreement has been reached to deal with exchanges of prisoners, setting up a ceasefire and the future government.
All the neighboring countries want a stable Afghanistan and will have to at least minimally agree to the terms to ensure a lasting peace.
Russia does not want Islamic extremists to stir up its own Muslim population. Putin is already bogged down in Syria and Ukraine and does not want to open up a third front in Afghanistan. Talks are on with Kyrgyzstan for a second Russian military base. It already has forces stationed in Tajikistan which has been enlarged.
Iran wants to shore up relations with a post-war Afghanistan to act as a stable buffer to Pakistan. It also needs water from western Afghanistan for its water-hungry eastern provinces. Iran is already deeply involved in Iraq and Syria. Sanctions by the U.S. and western Europe have also limited its resources. Economic problems at home create incentives to end the Afghan war.
Pakistan wants a stable Afghanistan. Many things have changed from 2001 when it supported Taliban control of Afghanistan. Islamabad, it’s capital, has a difficult relationship with the U.S., although the U.S. uses Pakistan to supply troops in Afghanistan. It is struggling economically and suffers from domestic terrorism. India and Iran are now Afghanistan’s main trading partners instead of Pakistan. Pakistan is also vulnerable and isolated and may agree to a deal to lessen pressure, according to Fredrika.
The U.S. has floated the potential of trade deals to sweeten the pot. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sent billions of dollars in loans to help its government debt issues.
According to Fredrika, there is a window of opportunity to broker the deal. Afghanistan moved its elections from April to July, giving the U.S. and the Taliban more time to negotiate and ensuring that the newly-elected Afghan government will be on board with the agreement.
There are a great many moving parts that must fit to come to a lasting peace. Time will tell if all the players can agree. At least now there is hope that the war can end. That is something all the players can hope for. Peace could come as soon as December, or not.