US, Taliban close in on Afghan peace deal: New Delhi must build on goodwill, increase involvement to protect interests
An increased role has to base itself on this goodwill that Delhi has not only in Kabul, but within some sections of the Taliban.
Both India and Pakistan may have a stake in ensuring that the intra-Afghan dialogue doesn’t come apart
There is the possibility that the deal will come apart and Afghanistan will once again fall to a period of bloodletting
Leave the fighting and cursing to others close by. They’ve been doing it for years.
So it is almost a done deal. Recent reports indicate that the United States plans to drawdown troops in Afghanistan from about 14,000 to 8,600, which is about a hundred-odd more than the time when President Donald Trump took office. The president will not like that final number as much as he would like ‘zero’. As elections in the US draw near, and also probably because of his own understandable convictions about ending the US’ ‘longest war’ — all of 18 years old — troop levels may be reduced to the ultimate round figure if the deal with the Taliban proves effective. As of now, the Pentagon is playing down a withdrawal and promising nothing. Nobody could. This is, after all, Afghanistan, the ‘graveyard of empires’, whose future is at stake.
India will have to worry about many aspects of the coming deal. In the immediate term, two particular aspects need keeping a wary eye on, given New Delhi’s close relationship to Kabul and its official lack of one with the Taliban. First is the question of the actual contours of the ‘deal’ that has been reached. It can’t yet be even called a ‘peace deal’ because even as talks have carried on, Afghanistan went into another paroxysm of violence.
Kabul, as always, is taking the brunt of truck and suicide attacks, even as US personnel continue to be killed. So far, as is apparent, the ‘open’ deal between the US and the Taliban, has centred around two points: A quick withdrawal of ‘foreign troops’ (which also includes NATO forces) as a requirement from the Taliban; and for the US a commitment from the Taliban that they will not allow Afghanistan to become a ‘safe haven’ for terrorists. There are obviously large parts of the deal which will remain largely secret, and it seems it will remain ‘conditions based’, with a considerable number of ifs, buts and wherefores.
With the actual final numbers now out, it seems that the US has acquiesced to the Taliban’s demand for a quick exit, starting perhaps even next month. The drawdown itself is going to take a while, with the bearded supremos told that pulling out some ten thousand troops and their equipment taking probably as much as two years. The actual beginning of the pullout will — hopefully though not certainly — be hinged to the degree of success of the intra-Afghan talks that is actually the core issue and due to take place soon at Oslo.
In simple words, the Taliban and the Afghan government have to sit down and talk. Putting aside all the highfalutin issues such as women’s rights, education etc, which is regularly aired in the western media, the actual talks will be on who gets what. In other words, what’s it worth for the Taliban to sit down and talk to a government which has just had the mat pulled out from under its legs.
In a normal negotiating cycle, the announcement of a US pullout should have followed a final decision on power sharing. In sum therefore, President Ashraf Ghani is now like a duck out of water, and without a US force guarding his back his position is worse than shaky. That’s not good for India, who has placed Kabul at the centre of its strategy. There is also the obvious question: Is India’s relationship to the Palace close enough to justify its provision of some ten thousand plus troops to shore up his government, if not his life? It is certainly not India’s job to bolster a virtual surrender of the US, which has anyway chosen to keep India as a back-bencher through the past year's negotiations. And there’s more.
Take a look at what seems to be the Taliban’s only commitment, which is that it will not provide shelter to terrorists. But thereby hangs a tale. First, just who is a terrorist in Taliban’s eyes? Certainly, it seems to almost viscerally hate the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) which took responsibility for a horrific attack on a wedding party in Kabul recently. But there is more than one Islamic State in Afghanistan.
One operates in and around Kabul, one along the north along Badakshan, and yet another in Nangarhar on the Pakistan border. This last one has seen plenty of fierce fighting between the two. Afghans, however, blame the Taliban for the Kabul attack, and many — including Afghan officials — see this Islamic State segment as a smokescreen for the Taliban themselves. So the future of IS-K is uncertain.
Then there is the US' Enemy No 1: Al-Qaeda. Reports indicate that it continues to operate alongside Taliban and probably provides it with funds as well. Given that the Taliban still denies that Al-Qaeda was behind 9/11, with no less a person than its spokesman Sohail Shaheen stating this, it’s clear that for the Taliban at least, that Al-Qaeda aren't ‘terrorists’ either.
At another level are the Lashkar-e-Taiba/ Jamaat-ud Dawa, Jaish-e-Mohammed and the rest. Given that the Taliban depend on their good offices along the border, and for their fighters in specific districts, they’re probably not ‘terrorists’ either. Perplexing for everyone concerned, India included. Someone had better buy an Afghan thesaurus.
A third aspect that has surfaced in the media is that a draft US-Taliban agreement will probably include the phrase ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’. That would be a huge coup for the group, which will see it as a recognition of themselves as a legitimate government and which predates the present elected government. So far, Kabul’s biggest negotiating point has been just that: that it is the government that the people chose to put in office.
Kabul will go into negotiations with that gun to its head. India’s position that all talks should be ‘Afghan-led and Afghan owned’ might find an unexpected twist. These are Afghans who are going to Norway. As talks go forward, Kabul is going to need all the backing it can get. New Delhi has to get busy, both on the ground in Kabul, in world capitals, and among the Taliban. The intra-afghan talks are the key pivot to Afghanistan’s future path.
All in all, the only party celebrating could be the Pakistanis. There will be glowing handshakes for the media on how Islamabad got the US off the hook. Behind the scenes, will be other handshakes with the Taliban leaders for having got every one of their demands met — withdrawal, the title, and a virtual recognition of victory — all of which is heady stuff.
But then this is Afghanistan, and nothing is ever that simple.
First, with a ceasefire virtually on the ground vis-a-vis the US, the Taliban are free to carve out more territory for themselves, and unleash violence on the hapless Afghan forces. That would annoy US officials no end, including Senator Lindsey Graham among others; he was the one who got Imran Khan his ‘world cup’ joint presser with the US president. He could just as easily make sure Pakistan gets the wrong end of the stick.
So no, it’s not that easy for Islamabad to wriggle out of its commitments this time. Second, there is the possibility that the whole deal will come apart and Afghanistan will once again fall to a period of bloodletting as in the 1980s. That’s right on Pakistan’s border. The blowback would be immense. That’s not too bad for India, except that it would inevitably get some of that outflow.
Strange to say that both India and Pakistan may have a stake — although for widely different reasons — in ensuring that the intra-Afghan dialogue doesn’t come apart. There is already pressure on Delhi to ‘do more’ at this vital time. So far, Delhi’s USP has been its generous aid, and the good reputation that it brings in its wake.
An increased role has to base itself on this goodwill that Delhi has not only in Kabul, but within some sections of the Taliban. That is the platform to build on. Leave the fighting and cursing to others close by. They’ve been doing it for years.
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