In a recent piece published in this paper titled “Supping with the devil”, I had raised the prospect of the eventual Afghanistan. I had written: “Are we headed for another Taliban government in Afghanistan? Under the existing circumstances, and keeping abreast of the recent developments, it may just be so. The escalating Taliban influence and power in Afghanistan, growing weariness of the Afghan people and the increasing US eagerness to quit the war-ravaged country are all indications that the Taliban ascendancy, after all, may not just be a mirage, but a real-time actualisation”. The reiteration of resolve of partial withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan by President Trump is a vital step in that direction. It is like the US has conceded to playing on the Taliban turf and resigned to their ascendency and eventual take-over. Why is this happening and what impact it may have on Afghanistan and the region are issues which are causing great anguish among the relative saner voices that still remain in the arena. It would be plausible to assume that if a war has not been won in seventeen years, it may not be won in the next seventeen either. The question is whether there is patience and the will to last a few more years? On the face of it, there appears to be a paucity of both. It is here that the prospect of any genuine peace in Afghanistan rests. Given their mindset, their rationale and the ingrained complexities that drive their power, there would be no stopping a Taliban onslaught for a take-over. This fits in perfectly with a narrative of restoration of their legitimate government in the country also As things stand at this juncture, there is a broad consensus about a negotiated settlement of the Afghan crisis in preference to continuing the war. There are a few discordant voices, but that can be construed more as optics than substance as, in the absence of the US resolve to continue fighting, there is little that the Afghan government would be able to do on its own. The problem that still remains to be tackled and for which, understandably, Pakistan’s support is being solicited is to convince the Taliban to engage with the Kabul government. As I have repeatedly contended in the past, there is little to no prospect of that happening as an engagement with the government would be in conflict with the key Taliban rationale that the real power in the country rests with the US and the concoction in Kabul is merely a mouthpiece of the occupation. They also contend that they were the legitimate government of Afghanistan which was removed through an armed intervention led by the US and its allies and the restoration of their government remains their ultimate goal. It is the relevance of this rationale that is at the core of the efforts underway to resolve the crisis. With the Taliban not agreeing to direct engagement with the Kabul government, US is looking at other possibilities that would pave the way for moving on with the process of reconciliation. The formation of an interim government for a stipulated period of time, entrusted with the task of amending the constitution in the light of input from the Taliban, is a serious prospect. All Afghan parties to the conflict would be the founding members of this interim set-up and shall work to put together a formulation that would not only accommodate the Taliban proposals, but also address their own insecurities for a peaceful and sustainable cohabitation. Whichever path is secured for the future, the critical issues to tackle would remain the Taliban contention that they are the legitimate government of Afghanistan with a right to rule, and what would be the restraining instruments available to stop them from a complete take-over of the country once they get an opportunity. This challenge is directly linked to the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban, particularly with regard to the schedule of withdrawal of the US troops and their allies from the country. It would be in the Taliban’s interest if a complete withdrawal is linked with the duration of the interim government and all foreign forces leave the country before the induction of the new elected government in Afghanistan. In that event, the principal concern would be the absence of a potent mechanism to ensure the rights of other ethnic groups as also a viable security apparatus to thwart an attempt for a take-over of the country by any one constituent, most notably the Taliban. Having been left out of the ongoing parleys between the US and the Taliban, President Ghani has displayed his anger by inducting Amrullah Saleh and Asadullah Khalid — two known Taliban adversaries — as ministers in the cabinet with the portfolios of interior and defence. Both are also former heads of the National Directorate for Security (NDS). This could be an indication of growing unrest within the Kabul government with the ongoing US-Taliban dialogue without the participation of its representatives. It could potentially lead to a level of resistance to the outcome of the negotiations and, over time, could also provide the rationale for a movement, plunging the country into strife and warfare again. Simultaneously, in a fractious Afghanistan, lack of cohesion among the Kabul government and the US would further strengthen the Taliban position. The projected drawdown in Afghanistan is a serious indication of the growing US exhaustion with the war. This is also a strategic slip that would generate further confidence among the Taliban to recharge their faith in an ultimate victory and return to power in a country that they once ruled, and still have the right to rule. In such an environment, why should they agree to the US and allied troops staying beyond the point of induction of a new government that would, understandably, be dominated by them? It is here that the prospect of any genuine peace in Afghanistan rests. Given their mindset, their rationale and the ingrained complexities that drive their power, there would be no stopping a Taliban onslaught for a take-over. This fits in perfectly with a narrative of restoration of their legitimate government in the country also. Even a depleted US presence would not only be a bulwark against any such adventurism, it would also take care of other strategic objectives that it may have in the region. So, for the interim, are we looking at an understanding being reached between the arch-rivals of yesteryears for accruing mutual gains? Indications are that, with time, such a prospect will become increasingly possible. In spite of the pivotal role that it has played in restarting the negotiations, an agreement between the US and the Taliban would also signal a diminishing space for Pakistan to play its cards as the interests of the other two parties would then be inextricably intertwined. Should that ring an alarm bell somewhere? From supping with the devil to making public its intention to withdraw some of the troops from Afghanistan, the US is moving along inexorably to ultimately offering it to the Taliban on a silver platter. It should be a moment of serious concern for those interested in genuine and equitable peace returning to a fractured and war-ravaged country. The writer is a political and security strategist, and heads the Regional Peace Institute — an Islamabad-based think-tank. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Raoof Hasan Published in Daily Times, December 30th 2018.