James Mattis' resignation hands Taliban advantage in Afghanistan, likely to set Indian policymakers scrambling

Surprise is certainly the hallmark of President Donald Trump’s administration. That, or shock. Just a day after the Pentagon released its Report to Congress on “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan” , the White House announced that troops for the mission would be cut by half, which is around 7,000. This announcement came a day after the announcement of the return of 2,000 US troops from Syria. The next day, Defence Secretary James Mattis resigned with a scathing letter which essentially underlined his strong differences with his Commander-in-Chief on this and other issues. According to reports, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton were also consulted, and were against the move to bring back troops from Afghanistan. But Trump  is clearly considering his voters and bringing troops home for Christmas is clearly going to sell. It's going to “sell” with the Taliban too. Another superpower tamed.

 James Mattis resignation hands Taliban advantage in Afghanistan, likely to set Indian policymakers scrambling

File image of US Defence Secretary James Mattis. AP

The Report to Congress by the Pentagon clearly states that “the presence of US forces makes possible the execution of two well-defined and complementary mission-sets” which are the NATO’s training mission for the Afghan Defence Forces  and the US Counter-Terrorism mission to defeat Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The objective of the mission is to  protect “the US homeland, US citizens, US interests overseas, and our allies and partners”. The report also reiterates that its “final goal” is a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, underlying which is the “single national goal” that it should never become a launch pad for terrorist attacks. Apparently Trump believes — in the teeth of advice to the contrary — that his objectives are being met.

In one area it seems that the US is getting its objective. As against earlier talks at Doha, the present round is being held in the UAE. The choice itself is interesting, since the US has roped in Saudi Arabia (which would never go to Qatar) who is to presumably persuade not only the Taliban, but also the Pakistanis who are now well and truly on a Saudi payroll, after Riyadh provided a $6 billion aid package and much more expected in terms of investment. This strange duo is therefore expected to bring the Taliban to heel, even while Riyadh is to additionally rein in the Pakistan Army and its intelligence agencies. What the two have in common for the Afghan’s future is another matter altogether. Recall, that it was this partnership that set in motion the deadly tide of extremism in Afghanistan, which then spread outwards.

While little is known about the talks which began on 17 December,  one source available are the Taliban’s own news releases. The first of these seems to indicate separate meetings separately with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, after which discussions were held with the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad. Then there are the denials, which include one a Tolo news report quoting a senior Taliban official who admitted that some 3,000 foreigners were still in the country.

It also denied that the talks were about a ceasefire, a caretaker government or anything else, instead indicating that the talks were entirely on US troops withdrawal. Both these show the hollowness of Taliban denials. “Foreigners” are aplenty in the country, especially when counting the Taliban’s Pakistani friends, and a variety of nationals who have filtered in as the US war in Syria picked up. But more importantly, it has so far seemed extremely unlikely that US commanders would insist on a great many pre-conditions that delivered their national objectives, well before any eventual phased withdrawal. Now, that is no longer certain. If half of US strength in Afghanistan is being withdrawn, then US Special Representative Zalmay Khalizad probably just lost a valuable trump card in negotiations.

Meanwhile the Taliban have had their own set of meetings. In a more than unusual move, Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akundzada  summoned at least seven from the political office in Doha office to his Pakistan hideout. Since Haibatullah is more scholar than diplomat or fighter, the actual chair of  these talks would be obvious to the poorest intellect. What transpired is obviously unknown, but the latest  report from the Pakistani media notes the release from Afghan custody of Anas Haqqani, the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, and the military head of the group, together with eight “aides”.

An uncle of Sirajuddin is also likely to have been released. There’s more. Earlier in the year, the Taliban spokesman announced that five of the most hardline Taliban — earlier detainees in Guantanamo — were made part of the Doha political office. Since these included persons like Mohamad Fazl , former Taliban army chief, and Khairullah Khairkhwa , once close to Mullah Omar, it was probably felt that a heavyweight negotiating team would be able to bring recalcitrant Taliban on board. Whatever the motive, it means that these releases and appointments bring the Taliban straight back to their fundamentalist core. Clearly, a considerable path has been traversed well before this round of talks and concessions given. Unsurprisingly, the US special envoy is reported to have flown to meet the Pakistani Army chief General Bajwa, immediately following the talks.

Which brings the whole back to the issue of Mattis' resignation and what it means for India. Recall that the 2+2 dialogue, when the Defence Secretary’s closing remarks reflected New Delhi’s satisfaction with Washington’s “South Asia policy” which hinged around Pakistan delivering the goods in Afghanistan. In a concession to reality, India also held its own “unofficial” talks with the Taliban in Moscow, mostly in step with the Kabul government.

Now it seems that Kabul has been calmly set aside in the present round of talks as well, leading to dismay among those who have staked their lives — quite literally — on keeping out the Taliban. In such a scenario, New Delhi is hardly likely to support the “India –Pacific” strategy that is the fulcrum of the US policy towards China. An India beset by a Taliban resurgence to the west is hardly likely to look for new enemies in the east. It is probably back to the drawing board for Indian policymakers.

Updated Date: Dec 21, 2018 20:51:54 IST