In chess, the middlegame begins when both players have positioned their major pieces as securely as possible, and leads into the endgame. However, theory is much less developed than in the endgame, since positions are unique in the middle game to game and there are too many pieces on the board – too many potential variations – to be completely analysed as can be done in the less complex endgames.

The middlegame description is not a bad metaphor for the state of play in Afghanistan, though there are not two but three main players, the USA, the Taliban and the Afghan government. Also, a number of active supporters towards the declared objective of a peaceful resolution and US withdrawal and equally active spoilers must be taken into account.

What are the dynamics of the Afghan situation now and what is the prognosis? In broad strokes, the conclusion of the Taliban-US agreement of February 29 brokered by experienced US Envoy Zalmy Khalilzad took many by surprise, not least the Afghan government and its leader President Ashraf Ghani.

President Ghani could be the biggest spoiler since if and when an intra-Afghan agreement is reached, he may likely be the biggest loser. So far, he has withstood pressure from the USA and the EU, but it remains to be seen if he will show flexibility and if so, to what degree.

The agreement completely upended the expectations and plans of India. India had poured its treasure into economic and other assistance to select politicians and the media to reactivate its post-partition objective of turning Afghanistan against Pakistan to confront it with a dual hostile front situation. It had worked on the Ghani government to project the Taliban resistance as foreign, controlled and supported by Pakistan. The Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS),always hostile to Pakistan had willingly lent itself to India to train and send terrorists into Balochistan and FATA and to host them on the Afghan side of the border with Pakistan, the remnants of the murderous ne plus ultra terrorists, the TTP, who had been otherwise largely destroyed or driven out of Pakistan. Assessing that Ghani would win the presidential elections, India switched from its traditional support for Abdullah Abdullah and the Northern alliance to Ghani to make common cause against the Taliban.

As for Russia, Khalilzad adroitly managed to get Kabulov, the Special Envoy for Afghanistan to welcome the agreement in a joint statement. Russia has since been reasserting itself, trying to persuade Abdullah Abdullah to continue his stance against the legitimacy of Ghani’s election as President.

The US-Taliban agreement lists a number of sequential steps including freeing of five thousand Taliban and one thousand government prisoners by both sides by March 10, leading to the start of intra-Afghan talks which in turn would negotiate a comprehensive ceasefire. The Afghan government complains that their agreement with the USA does not parallel the US negotiations with the Taliban in their much-resented absence.

There are a number of major complicating issues. The Afghan government itself lacks stability with the unresolved Ashraf Ghani-Abdullah Abdullah divide despite a visit by Pompeo and the conditional withdrawal of a billion dollars of scheduled assistance for the under-pressure Afghan forces, subject to a resolution of this deadlock. There have been encouraging developments. Despite differences at the top, an agreed-upon negotiating team was put together for the talks. It was agreed that the government would set up two advisory mechanisms; a Consultative State Council and a Higher Peace Council to advise the President on negotiations. These would give voice and position to all Afghan leaders not given ministerial positions by the two leaders and most of them would serve on both. American pressure seems to have worked, and it is learnt that Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have reached an agreement to share power, which will be announced to coincide with Khalilzad’s forthcoming visit to Kabul on May 14. Abdullah would become the head of the key Higher Peace Council.

The Taliban, now recognised by the US de facto, insist that as per their agreement, prisoners must be freed by both sides before talks commence. Ashraf Ghani wants fifteen hundred Taliban to be freed as talks begin and the rest in stages as progress is made towards a ceasefire. That is not acceptable to the Taliban.

The Afghan government, echoing the UN Secretary General’s call, wants the Taliban to agree on a coronavirus-motivated humanitarian ceasefire which should remain in force till the WHO proclaims the pandemic over. The Taliban respond that it was for the intra-Afghan negotiations to discuss the date and modalities of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire, including joint implementation mechanisms, which will be announced along with the completion and agreement over the future political roadmap of Afghanistan. They have scrupulously kept to their agreement not to attack American or allied forces. But the Taliban have increased attacks against government forces causing significant casualties.

The only leverage the Taliban have is the territory they control and their armed ability to attack and defend. After all these years of sacrifice and casualties, if the Taliban leadership gave up this leverage before obtaining their objectives, they would lose the support of the field commanders they rely on.

These issues have to be resolved before talks begin and the even more thorny issues of substance such as the constitution, the form of governance and power-sharing are tackled.

On the side of a settlement are the USA, its NATO and other western allies, the EU, Russia, the Central Asian States, China and Pakistan. President Trump views Afghanistan through the lens of the November elections. As the date grows closer, will this focus remain or get diluted? In any case, the drawdown of US troops has been taking place somewhat more rapidly than originally planned and set forth in the agreement.

Pakistan, next to the long-suffering people of Afghanistan, has more to gain than any other country from an Afghanistan at peace within and without. American and western expectations of what Pakistan can do to facilitate a settlement is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it enhances Pakistan’s relevance which is a welcome development. On the other hand, such expectations are overly ambitious. Many believed they were leveraging Afghans but it turned out to be the other way around.

Pakistan’s influence with the Taliban is limited, and unlike the 1990s, when it was over estimated even then. Pakistan has facilitated the process but its progress depends upon the parties. Pakistan has advised the Taliban to lower the level of violence as its counterproductive as has been its constant advice to the USA. There is a limit to what Pakistan can do. It would not be prudent to antagonise the Taliban as happened after the support unwisely offered by President Musharraf after 9/11 to the USA to attack and occupy Afghanistan. The Taliban will be an important part of any future dispensation and can cause problems in Pakistan through groups who look up to them. Pakistan’s objective should be to maintain good relations with all Afghan parties which it has been trying to do these past few years.

With constant pressure on Pakistan, the US at some levels, regards the military issue in Afghanistan as key. That is reflected in Khalilzad’s most recent visit to Pakistan when he called on the Chief of Army Staff but not on the Foreign Minister, which was a mistake on Pakistan’s part, by not insisting upon this. The US, NATO and western allies forget that these past eighteen years, Pakistan has supplied the oxygen that has permitted them to stay on in Afghanistan at great cost.

As the middlegame in Afghanistan proceeds the next few months would show if it unfolds towards an endgame – a comprehensive settlement which its people long for and well wishers support. Pakistan for its part, is in background support but the pace of negotiations and their outcome is squarely in the hands of the three main players and their ability to rise above internal and external spoilers.

Ultimately it is for the Afghans to find the middle ground for the republic and the emirates to coexist. Outsiders would always have their vested interests and would prefer to see a peace that protects these interests.