America’s big gamble
by Sandhya Jain on 17 Mar 2020 5 Comments

Afghanistan’s peace process has stumbled as talks between the government and Taliban in Oslo, Norway, could not begin on March 10, 2020, as President Ashraf Ghani’s rival, Abdullah Abdullah, held a parallel swearing-in ceremony on March 9, 2020, repudiating the results of the September 2019 election. Abdullah had challenged the 2014 verdict also, but accepted a US-brokered deal wherein he was to be made prime minister, but was instead given the designation of chief executive officer. In Afghanistan, observers believe that Abdullah enjoys more support from major political parties and players.


On March 10, the UN Security Council unanimously recognised the Doha deal (Feb. 29, 2020) between the US and Taliban as part of “significant steps towards ending the war” in Afghanistan and to provide “sustained support” to achieve peace through negotiations. However, experts observed that the Doha deal contradicts US commitments to the internationally recognised government headed by Ashraf Ghani. The resolution was amended to allow Beijing to promote the Belt and Road Initiative for reconstruction of Afghanistan, while Moscow inserted a paragraph regarding “the urgent need for all Afghan parties to counter the world drug problem with the goal of combating traffic in opiates originating from Afghanistan”.


Washington’s hurry to sign the deal with Taliban without resolving the deadlock in Kabul does not bode well for the region. Many question the bilateral pact as Taliban did not renounce al-Qaida, and made no commitments regarding the rights of Afghan women (the excuse for the 2001 invasion) or human rights of Afghans. The Taliban pledged to prevent use of Afghanistan’s territory for terrorist attacks on the US and “its allies”, but was silent about its bases in Pakistan, Ayman al-Zawahri who escaped to Pakistan in 2001 with Osama bin Laden, and Sirajuddin Haqqani.


Excluded from the deal, President Ashraf Ghani refused to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan government prisoners, but later offered to release 1,500 by the end of March and the remaining 3,500 in groups of 500 every fortnight after the Intra-Afghan Talks begin. Ghani is demanding reduction in violence as Taliban continues attacks in rural areas though it has spared cities and district headquarters after Mulla Abdul Ghani Baradar had a telephonic conversation with President Donald Trump. Ghani also wants all released prisoners to give a written promise not to return to the battlefield. The Taliban insist that all 5,000 prisoners must be released before talks begin.


The deal is contentious as it puts the fate of the new Kabul government in peril, as few expect the Taliban to settle for power-sharing. Reports from Washington suggest the US government has “persuasive intelligence” that Taliban will renege on its promises; Trump admitted on March 6 that Taliban could “possibly” overrun the Afghan government after troops withdraw. Pointing out that at the pinnacle of Taliban power in 2000, only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates recognized the regime, Brookings scholar Bruce Riedel said President Trump’s agreement “is strikingly reminiscent of Nixon administration’s deal with North Vietnam in 1973, which excluded the South Vietnam government”.


Former director of national intelligence John Negroponte observed that the deal lacked a meaningful enforcement mechanism and peace between the Afghan parties requires continued US support to the current government and retaining at least some military capability in the event of large-scale conflict. He said the bilateral agreement opened the door to differing interpretations about what was agreed, as already evident in the prisoner exchange issue. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has admitted that the Taliban made over 70 attacks on Afghan government forces after signing the agreement, and said the accord would not move forward if Taliban reneged on its promises.


Some observers wonder if complete troop withdrawal is envisaged as this would mean shutting nearly 400 US and coalition bases, including camps, forward operating bases, and combat outposts. Given Washington’s renewed assertion vis-à-vis Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran it is unlikely that it would give up bases in Afghanistan, heartland of the Great Game. The alleged secret annexures to the Doha deal possibly include retention of bases, with passive US military presence.


There are misgivings in Kabul. A day before the pact was signed, Afghan vice president Amrullah Saleh recalled the horrors of Taliban rule from 1996 and said people fear a return to that medieval wasteland which Pakistan will use to spread its influence across Central Asia and against India. In the recent elections of 2019, a suicide squad attacked his office, killing around 30 persons, including two of his nephews. Akram Gizabi, chairman of the World Hazara Council, said the deal is based on American war fatigue and Zalmay Khalilzad is an old associate of Taliban from 1996, when the US government held secret negotiations with the Taliban to build oil and gas pipelines through Afghanistan.


Currently, most analysts believe that Pakistan’s intelligence services, particularly the Inter-Services Intelligence, could emerge stronger if the talks produce some kind of power-sharing between Taliban and the Kabul government. A stronger Taliban will quickly overwhelm the regime and increase Pakistani heft in the region, at least for some time. But this could also encourage groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban (Pakistani Taliban) to try to take control of the Pakistani State. Islamabad could thus find itself riding the proverbial tiger.


Clearly, Washington’s initiative has complicated matters in Afghanistan, in both the short and the long term. Russia and China have moved dexterously to protect their interests in the region, and both can leverage their ties with Pakistan to contain the Taliban, if necessary. Washington also needs Pakistan to stabilize the region; Islamabad which have to show smart diplomatic skills. Iran will lean on Russia and China.


New Delhi cannot use Islamabad’s good offices to establish working relations with the Taliban, should it manage to seize power in Kabul. The IC-814 experience is fresh in many minds. India contributed handsomely to Afghanistan’s reconstruction in the post-Taliban years, especially towards the rehabilitation of landmine victims. We have much to offer a government that desires infrastructure development, trade, and extraction of the country’s untapped mineral resources. The invitation to be present at Doha was recognition of India’s positive contributions, but also highlighted the failure of multilateral attempts at peace, such as the Heart of Asia process. India will have to watch how events unfold in Kabul.


(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal)

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