On Sunday, US Senator Lindsey Graham addressed a press conference in Islamabad and said that Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan “was right” all along about the need for “reconciling with the Taliban.” Graham also asserted that “the war in Afghanistan will end through reconciliation.”
That Graham — arguably America’s most hawkish senator — would speak of ending a war is itself stunning, but for him to advocate for a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war is a dramatic reversal from his stated position as late as December.
During a visit to Afghanistan last month, Graham said, "The ISIS threat in Afghanistan is far greater than I thought it was. If you get a peace agreement tomorrow between the Taliban and the Afghan government, that will not solve the threat to our homeland."
Speaking on the Afghan military, he said quite bluntly: “The bad news [is] if we leave, this place will go to s**t in a year.”
So what has changed? Why has Graham embraced the possibility of peace in Afghanistan and going as far as proposing a US-Pakistan free trade agreement and a meeting between Khan and Donald Trump?
The answer is in the question: Donald Trump.
As demonstrated above, Graham initially sought to resist Trump’s push for a withdrawal. But Graham has since reconciled with the parameters established by the US president.
Trump is keen on extracting the United States from overseas conflicts, working, instead through states — allied and not-so-allied — he sees as strong. He has little appetite for propping up weak proxy states like Afghanistan. And sub-national actors like the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, don’t have the same currency for him as sovereign entities do.
Now, Trump does have contradictory impulses. He also is receptive to privatising military operations to mercenaries like Erik Prince.
The bottom line, however, is that Trump has a visceral disdain for spending tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money for endless wars and deploying US troops all across the globe. This is blasphemy in the eyes of the US political and national security establishment. But folks like Graham have had had to come to terms with Trump’s paleoconservative tendencies.
After a long journey, Graham has proved to be adept at following Trump’s lead.
Early in the Republican primary season, Graham called Trump “the world’s biggest jackass.” And when Trump took the Republican Party by storm and won the nomination, Graham refused to support his party’s candidate, joining the ranks of the “Never Trumpers,” But in the spring of 2017, months after Trump shocked the world with his presidential victory, Graham experienced a Damascene conversion and began to ingratiate himself with the world’s most powerful man.
It may be that Graham aspires to join the Trump cabinet as secretary of defense or state and is out to prove that he is a capable intermediary between Trump and the world—someone who can help him secure “deals” for the world’s most intractable disputes.
But even if Graham does not have aspirations for a job with the administration, foreign policy remains his top priority as a senator. He sees a world of threat and top among them are Iran and transnational jihadist networks like Daesh. And to address these challenges, he likely aims to manage and slow down Trump’s drawdowns in both Afghanistan and Syria.
That may be easier said than done. Graham’s own inconsistent rhetoric is makes clear the challenges ahead. He has recognized that arming the PKK/YPG was “a dumb idea” and yet he has also threatened Turkey should it take action against the group.
Peace, not war, in Afghanistan
With respect to the Afghanistan war, Graham — in dangling a free trade agreement — may have the wrong impression that Pakistan sees the Taliban as mere chips it can trade in at peak value. But it may be too much to expect Pakistan to change course and exact heavy pressure on the Taliban as Afghanistan enters a political transition with elections this summer.
Should another election crisis emerge, there may be no legitimate government in Kabul for Islamabad to press the Taliban to negotiate with.
There are two overlapping timetables: one for Afghanistan’s elections and the other for peace talks with the Taliban. (Trump is believed to have provided his special envoy with a six-month window to clinch a deal). Not only does the negotiations process need more time, but an election crisis may end up derailing the peace talks.
For the sake of peace, the elections may once again have to be deferred and an interim government perhaps ought to be put in place.
Donald Trump has proved to be a disruptive force at home and globally: mostly for bad, but for some good too. He is defying the Washington consensus by pivoting away from support for the PKK/YPG and in his new-found willingness to work with Pakistan to produce a political settlement to the Afghanistan war.
Though Trump is volatile and on the whole unthoughtful, he has achieved nothing short of a miracle in getting Lindsey Graham to talk about peace and not war.
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