Review of Situation
On 29 February 2020, USA and Taliban inked a landmark peace agreement. It essentially stated that Taliban will eschew violence, will not harbour foreign terrorist groups,and that Taliban will hold peace talks with the Afghan regime in Kabul for power sharing in governance. In bargain 5000 Taliban prisoners will be released and all foreign troops will leave by May 2021. The power sharing negotiations commenced in September 2020 at Doha and are known as the Doha peace talks.India is a participant in this.
Since then, little progress has been made in the peace talks. In contrast, the violence in Afghanistan has increased and Taliban has become emboldened to attack Government troops in countryside. It today controls over 70 percent of Afghanistan.
The main reason for slow progress of the talks is the lack of sincere negotiations and clear, sustainable commitments by Taliban.Taliban seems to be playing for time, waiting eagerly for May 2021 exit of foreign troops from Afghans oil, before it launches its main offensive to capture power in Kabul.
This apparently is clear to all parties, yet for the time being it appears that peace talks must carry on and peaceful settlement of this decades old problem be given a chance. The world too is weary of this “forever war”.
On 15th February 2021, NATO General Secretary Jens Stolenberg stated that Taliban should seriously adhere to the February 2020 Peace Agreement and create an atmosphere enabling withdrawal of all foreign troops by May 2021. He was of the opinion that the foreign troops cannot leave Afghanistan without finalisation of a power sharing deal between Taliban and Afghan govern mentor before the time is right.
In response, on 16th February 2021, Taliban group’s deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in an open letter to the US citizens, called upon US to fully honour its commitments made in the peace deal.The letter reiterated that “it is in the interest of all to end the war and that the implementation of the Doha peace deal is the most effective way of ending it”. Taliban emphasized in the letter that Afghans would thrash out an agreement amid themselves and “achieve the establishment of an Islamic government”. Taliban also made it clear that they will not allow any foreign interference,signing off stating “defending our land and our people is our legitimate right”.
On 19th February, the US General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Army Central Command (CENTCOM) visited Islamabad and held talks with Pakistan military on the possibility of postponing the May 2021 withdrawal of foreign troops deadline till a proper power sharing deal is brokered between Afghan Government and Taliban. The main cause for postponing has been stated as the failure of Taliban to fulfil its pledges as per the February 2020 Peace Deal. He voiced that a withdrawal without power sharing deal will risk the collapse of the Afghan Government.
It may be recollected that Pakistan is the major foreign sponsor of Taliban and has been credited with achievement of bringing Taliban on the negotiating table.
Here it also must be stated that Pakistan also provides Taliban with safe sanctuaries within its borders which it is unlikely to close for Taliban, ever, to keep its leverage on the group, which is designated on the UN terror watch list. To state that it harbours a terrorist group on its soil will be an understatement. India, its interests and large influence in Afghanistan are the prime targets of Pakistan,in a war zone of added “strategic depth”, where it aims to hurt India by using proxies to do its dirty work.
On 19th February 2021, the Russian special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov visited Islamabad and held talks with Gen Bajwa and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. This visit came a day after the Taliban held talks with Russia at Moscow. A press release on the Russian delegation’s visit stated that “constructive discussions were held on advancement of Afghan peace process based on an inclusive political settlement supported by regional consultations”.
India may interpret this as a rejection by Taliban of postponing the deadline for withdrawal of foreign troops. Will then Moscow, Delhi, Teheran,Islamabad, Ashgabat and Beijing be able to negotiate a peaceful solution,is a million-dollar question. Taliban in its latest diplomatic blitz visited China, Iran and Turkmenistan and it can be construed that they too will support Taliban.
Readers may recollect that in November 2018, Moscow had organised the first meet between the Taliban and unofficial representatives of the Afghan Government with representatives from India, China, Iran, Pakistan and Central Asian States in attendance. It may also be recalled that the Dushanbe Declaration of SCO in October 2018 had called for warring factions to find a solution which should be “afghan driven and afghan owned”. SCO then had committed aid to reconstruct Afghanistan, after withdrawal of foreign troops.
Options for US and NATO
There are no easy solutions to the Afghan imbroglio. One option for US and NATO is to adhere to the May 2021 troops withdrawal deadline. The exit of foreign troops in May 2021, in the midst of increasing violence by Taliban coupled with active presence of foreign terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, the non-committal stance of Taliban in peace talks and the near non-involvement of regional players in the peace talk,are all making the decision to exit, a hard one.
Today the main advantage of presence of foreign troops is the equilibrium they provide between government and Taliban forces. It is preventing tilting of balance in favour of Taliban.
In case US and NATO force both Afghan government and Taliban to speed up negotiations to come to a deal, it just may be a hurried and a patchy one which may not stand the test of time. Expediting negotiations may embolden Taliban to abandon the peace negotiations, realising that US and NATO will meet the May 2021 deadline, deal or no deal.
In case the US and NATO does adhere to May 2021 deadline and withdraw their forces, they are likely to throw away all the gains of restoration Afghanistan since the intervention by US in 1996 which toppled the Taliban regime and by the UN sanctioned 40 nation ISAF in 2001, after World Trade Tower attack. In this the main loser will be the Afghan people, who will witness a resurgence of violence, power tussle, abrogation of fundamental rights as enshrined in the present Constitution and the end of democracy. Violence against women will increase which already has as many women law makers, media personalities, professional have been assassinated. Afghanistan may then return to the older format of Northern Alliance controlling the area in and around Mazhar e Sharif with Taliban reigning in Kabul and Qandahar. In such a scenario, India’s $ 3 billion dollar investment in soft power may fall victim of power rivalry and evil machinations of Pakistan. Chaos will return.
Amidst this chaos,small hard-line terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS will prosper, strengthen and enlarge their network making not only the sub-continent a dangerous place but also Central Asian States and other parts of the world, namely the West.
This is hard option for the US and NATO to execute and their current re think on this makes it a less likely option.
A second option can be to maintain a Residual force. This option of retaining a small residual force of foreign troops for mainly counter terrorism operations may act to provide a balance and sanity in the balance of power in Afghanistan, post withdrawal of foreign troops in May 2021. It will also be seen as a goodwill gesture by the Afghan people who will be assured of continuation of peace and stability. This will also negate third party interference in Afghanistan, to tilt the balance.
However, the US- Taliban Peace deal is emphatic on the deadline of withdrawal of foreign troops. Taliban, in their February 15 statement too have called upon both US and NATO to adhere to it. This option may require re negotiations, the process for which seems to have already started with the visit of US CENTCOM Chief to Islamabad.
The attempt to re-negotiate may witness Taliban completely abandoning the US- Taliban peace deal. That will turn the clock back. It is unlikely that the Taliban will agree as they are firm believers of the “Hanafi jurisprudence” which states that if any central clause of the deal is not adhered to, then the whole deal stands abrogated.
US and NATO may ignore Taliban and continue to maintain troops presence post May 2021. This too may make Taliban scuttle the peace deal. In both the scenarios Taliban will resume attacks on foreign troops, now in reduced numbers, prompting a surge in troops and a renewed campaign to defeat Taliban,a return to the past.
In case Taliban does agree to the maintenance of a residual force, it will only be encouraged to step up its offensive on Government forces and to regain more ground. This residual force will prove ineffective against the Taliban resurgence. This option may bring more misery for the common Afghan.
Maintenance of a residual force is also likely to prolong the conflict, unless it agreed to by the Taliban, with the rider that it will eschew violence and seek early settlement on power sharing and adhere to it, which at the face off it is a difficult take.
The third option can be to re-negotiate the withdrawal deadline by negotiating for an extension. This can be bargained by claiming that Taliban has not adhered to the terms of the February 2020 Peace Deal, which is true.Extension can be sought till a power sharing deal is brokered and implemented and trial evaluated.
A more plausible reason to seek re negotiation can be to re-negotiate the complete February 2020 Peace Deal, which has been made a mockery of by Taliban by its increased violence instead of its promise to eschew it and its total reticence in the progressing the power sharing deal, both apparently encouraged by the commitment of US that all foreign troops will leave by May 2021 and its “walking the talk’ by reducing them.
It may be recalled that there were nearly 1, 50, 000 troops foreign troops in Afghanistan in 2010. Today, in sharp contrast there are 2500 US troops and 6346 US contractors plus 7000 NATO troops (excluding US) and 1,75, 000 Afghan Government Forces.
Postponing or suspending the withdrawal due to non-fulfilment of obligations by Taliban will be countered by a “literalist tact”, limiting the re negotiations to the unfulfilled part of the deal in which its commitment to not providing harbour to foreign terrorist groups is most nebulousy recorded .This may be hard to monitor on ground and therefore will be nonstarter as they will claim that this clause is applicable only once they are in governance.
A decision by US to unilaterally extend the deadline will invite retaliatory measures by Taliban and has the potential of scuttling the peace deal and return to confrontation and violence.This will see a surge in foreign troops. History will repeat itself “in this graveyard of empires”.
The best course here in this option maybe to negotiate for a short-term extension through Pakistan, a process which seems to be in motion.During this period of extension, it may be emphasised upon Taliban that they must complete the power sharing deal with Afghan Government in earnest and also eschew violence and support to foreign terrorist groups with immediate effect.
This extension is already being anticipated in Taliban ranks and is causing growing discontentment amongst them.In case negotiated, Taliban may splinter and the peace deal may collapse. This will make Taliban less inclined to agree to it. The non-release of the complete 5000 Taliban prisoners is already being viewed by Taliban as non-fulfilment of a major peace deal clause by US.
To make aconducive atmosphere for re negotiations for extension, US may release bulk of the prisoners and also may lift sanctions on imposed on the Taliban leaders.However, it is unlikely that even if after all the US appeasement actions, Taliban will agree for more than a few months extension, knowing fully well that West is committed to withdrawal and it can again abide time by its reticence to push the US to the wall, to leave, albeit a few months later.
An UN Renegotiation of the Peace Deal
All the three options discussed above have their merits and each have a degree of success in built but are more fraught with chances of failure.In case the US negotiated Peace Deal is heading for failure and US and NATO decide to abandon it by suspending any further withdrawals, UN must again step in with India, Russia, China, NATO (including US),Iran, Pakistan and Central Asian States to negotiate a peace deal and to oversee its implementation on ground in a time bound manner. Inclusion of regional players, all who have historical ties with Afghanistan will be welcomed by both Taliban and Afghan Government and also by NATO. In this India can play a major role as it has been neighbour of Afghanistan from times immemorial and has very deep-rooted ties with it, despite the interjection of the artificially created state of Pakistan between them since 1947. In this it can well be recalled that other than the $3 billion soft power investment in reconstruction of Afghanistan, Indian PM,on 09 February 2021 had announced the building of Shahtoot dam project worth $286 million.Earlier, India had built the Salma Dam inHerat. In another recent assistance to Afghanistan, India donated five lakh COVID vaccines, an assistance described as a “clear sign of generosity, commitment and strong partnership” by Mohd Haneef Atmar, the Foreign Minister. Taliban too is well aware of our commitment.
SCO initiative to bring peace to Afghanistan too is an option but SCO cannot provide the scale of finances required for rebuilding Afghanistan.
Today, the Afghanistan relies completely on foreign funds, namely from US. The 2020 Afghanistan Conference in Geneva has pledged 12 to 13 billion dollars for the period 2021-24.The Meet was attended by 66 States and 32 International Organisations including UN and the World bank. Taliban well understands the dependence of Afghanistan on foreign aid for at least the next two decades. This one of the best leverage international community has on it to make Taliban “walk the line”.
As the May 2021 deadline approaches, the world awaits with grave anticipation for the success of the US peace deal. India too awaits the outcome with abated breath, for it has much at stake in Afghanistan, primary being to deny Pakistan the “Strategic Depth”.