Finally, the United States has reached an agreement with the Taliban. The Americans were negotiating with a weak hand, having already acknowledged, not only by Trump but by Obama also, that a military solution to the Afghanistan conflict was not possible, and repeatedly announced that the US intended to end its costly 18-year war in Afghanistan and bring the US troops back home. During his election campaign, Trump had made this promise and is under pressure to deliver on it before the presidential election in November this year.
On Afghanistan, Trump has blown hot and cold, hitting the country with the “mother-of-all-bombs”, calling off the talks and then resuming them, and even now threatening to punish the Taliban as never before if it violates the just signed peace agreement. The reality is that it is all bluster. The US is not going to recommit itself to Afghanistan no matter what happens; its allies, already upset with his hectoring and unilateral decisions, will not join hands with him in any renewed military action there.
Even if it was known for sometime that the US was looking for a way out of the Afghan quagmire and would make concessions, the peace agreement it has struck with the Taliban could have been more even-handed and less humiliating for the American side. While claiming that the peace process in Afghanistan should be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led, the US has entered into a separate deal with the Taliban, bypassing the legitimate government in Kabul, and giving Taliban a status equal to the latter. The US has signed an agreement with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which implicitly recognises an eventual takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. The Taliban was adamant on this and the US yielded. The caveat in the agreement is that the US has not recognised the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as a state. Under the agreement the US will reduce the number of its troops to 8,600 in 135 days, with coalition troops also drawn down proportionately. All troops will be out in 14 months, including “non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel.” This meets the Taliban demand that all US troops must leave, which means no bases, nor residual forces to provide air support or surveillance.
The Taliban, according to the agreement, “will not allow any of its members, other individual or groups, including Al Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies”. This means that the Taliban’s hands in the region in which we are, have not been fully restrained, as only the US and its allies are out of bounds. This leaves India out of the scope of Taliban’s threat to Indian interests. There is no mention of the Islamic State or groups like LeT and JeM which are UN designated terrorist organisations, which leaves India exposed. If fighting terrorism is a shared responsibility of the international community, as is stated in several statements in international forums, why the Taliban has not been asked to eschew complicity with any violence outside Afghanistan is unfortunate. India and the US have strengthened their counter-terrorism cooperation. Such cooperation has relevance and meaning essentially in the Pakistan-Afghanistan context, which is why omitting any reference to Taliban’s regional responsibility to not permit violence emanating from its soil is a serious omission.
US sanctions on Taliban leaders are required to be removed in three months (by May 29). Will these sanctions be removed against the Haqqani group too? US policy towards the Taliban has been, in any case, rather dubious in terms of its war on terrorism. The Taliban has never been declared a terrorist organisation by the US despite its involvement in the killing of thousands of American soldiers in Afghanistan. The Taliban chiefs have been assassinated and other Taliban leaders too have been eliminated through aerial action, yet the Taliban has not been declared a terrorist organisation. The strategy obviously has been to keep the doors open for eventual negotiations with the Taliban. This contrasts with the draconian sanctions the US has imposed on organisations, even belonging to the state, in sovereign countries.
Though the US was looking for a way out of the Afghan quagmire, the peace agreement it has struck with the Taliban could have been less humiliating for the Americans
The joint declaration between the US and the Afghanistan government of February 29, 2020, says that the US will facilitate “discussion with the Taliban representatives on confidence-building measures, to include determining the feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides”, whereas the US-Taliban agreement lays down that 5,000 Taliban prisoners and upto 1,000 prisoners “from the other side” by the Taliban will be released by March 10, which is when the Oslo-based intra-Afghan talks begin. Already, differences have erupted on this issue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with the former declaring that no prisoner release will take place before these talks begin, and the Taliban in return announcing that as per their agreement with the US they will not attack foreign forces but that their “operations will continue against the Kabul administration forces”. For them the short period of reduction of violence that was a pre-condition for the US-Taliban agreement has ended and that henceforth their operations will continue as normal. The cease-fire issue has been left undetermined in the US-Taliban agreement, even though it is critically important for bringing peace to Afghanistan and ending violence, when it says that “A permanent and comprehensive ceasefire will be an item on the agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations. The participants of intra-Afghan negotiations will 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”.
The future of Afghanistan is most uncertain, which is problematic for India. Pakistan, which has assisted in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, has obtained a political role in Afghanistan through the Taliban which it will use to control developments there, including with regard to India’s presence and future role. So far, the US provided the political and security cover for India to maintain close ties with the Afghan government and its people. With a new dispensation in Kabul, India’s position will be impaired even if India has earned a lot of goodwill amongst the Afghan people, including the Pashtuns.
The Taliban leadership is unabashedly Islamic. Even now its statements on the rights of women and freedoms enjoyed by the Afghan people since the ouster of the previous Taliban government make it clear that these rights and freedoms have to be in accordance with the tenets of Islam. For India the inclusion of a radical Islamic force in the government in Kabul coupled with an increasingly radicalised Pakistan will aggravate the country’s security situation.
The Taliban leaders are already bragging about the ouster of the Russians first and now the Americans from Afghanistan. For them the objective of ousting the Kabul government, bereft of US support, from power would seem easily achievable in due course. How much resistance will the Afghan security forces be able to present is a doubtful proposition despite the clause in the US-Afghan government joint declaration that “The United States re-affirms its commitment to seek funds on a yearly basis that support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of Afghan security forces, so that Afghanistan can independently secure and defend itself against internal and external threats.” Once the US withdraws, Afghanistan will lose its strategic value for America and the commitment to maintain financial support for the Afghan government, especially if intra-Afghan talks succeed and the Taliban are in the government, will make little sense. The Taliban have made some commitments to give political cover to allow the US to withdraw “honourably”, but they know well that if they are violated, neither the US nor the Afghan government will have the option to hold them accountable. The intra-Afghan talks are between a winning side and a losing one, and the Kabul government already disunited, will not be able to negotiate from any position of self-confidence and strength.
Other uncertainties abound, be it the morale and cohesion of the Afghan national security forces, their ability to withstand the Taliban, the manoevures of the entrenched warlords, the survival of the existing constitution, the process of integration of the Taliban fighters with the Afghan army as part of a search for a negotiated solution at Oslo, the source of guarantees for peace in Afghanistan. The US-Afghanistan joint declaration says that “The United States will request the recognition and endorsement of the UN Security Council for this agreement and related arrangements”. This will mean bringing Russia and China on board on all the details of the US-Taliban agreement, and that may require engaging them seriously.
India has been right in not engaging with the Taliban though some voices in the foreign policy establishment have advocated contact. India was and is under compulsion to legitimise the takeover of Afghanistan by a radical Islamic force and indirectly aid Pakistan’s geopolitical ambitions. Because of endemic Pakistani hostility, the terrorist threat to us by jihadi forces and our religious diversity our situation is different from other countries that neighbour Afghanistan are involved in the conflict there. In November 2017, we sent two senior retired ambassadors as unofficial representatives to Moscow for Russia-initiated talks on Afghanistan in which the Taliban participated. Our ambassador in Qatar was present when the US-Taliban agreement was signed at Doha. Because the Afghan government itself supports the Afghanistan reconciliation process and the Ghani government has made overtures in the past to the Taliban, not to mention former president Karzai’s strong support for talks with the Taliban, these diplomatic gestures by India were the minimum. It was the right move to send our Foreign Secretary to Kabul as the US-Taliban agreement was signed to mark our support to the Afghan government and to make an assessment of how they see developments ahead. The Foreign Secretary rightly reiterated India’s consistent support for an “independent, sovereign, democratic, pluralistic, and inclusive Afghanistan,” and for an “enduring and inclusive” peace and reconciliation that is “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled”. He also referred to an “end to externally sponsored terrorism.” To underline our commitment to the Afghan government and people, agreements for road projects in Bamiyan and Mazar-e-Sharif provinces were signed.
We will have to deal with developments as they occur in Afghanistan. We cannot control them. What is needed is self-confidence and developing our own capabilities to deal with challenges as they arise.
(The writer is a former Foreign Secretary)