The surprise visit by President Donald Trump to Afghanistan on November 29 to be with US troops for Thanksgiving was a good gesture in line with the respect and support the US gives to its military. In 2018, Trump had similarly visited US troops in Iraq on December 24 – a day before Christmas. Recall Trump concluding his televised speech outlining his new strategy on Afghanistan from Fort Myer military base in Arlington on August 21, 2017, first saying “May God bless our Military” followed by “May God bless the United States of America”.
This was President Trump’s first ever visit to Afghanistan. Addressing some 1500 US troops at the Bagram military base, Trump talked about US victories against Al Qaeda and ISIS and said he wanted to reduce US troops in Afghanistan from 13,000 to 8,600, later adding, “We can go much further than that.” He also said that the war in Afghanistan would not be decided on the battlefield but by the Afghan people and through a political solution. He added, “We are going to stay until such time as we have a deal or we have total victory. And they want to make a deal very badly.”
In separate discussion with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Trump told him he had reopened peace talks with the Taliban, saying, “The Taliban want to make a deal and we are meeting with them.” Ghani later tweeted, “Both sides underscored that if the Taliban are sincere in their commitment to reach a peace deal, they must accept a ceasefire.” Trump’s address conspicuously made no mention of the support Taliban is receiving from Pakistan and other countries.
In his televised speech from Fort Myers in August 2017, Trump had specifically accused Pakistan for harbouring terrorists that were killing US troops in Afghanistan. He had warned Pakistan by saying, “This must change and it must change immediately.” But there has been no change in Pakistan’s policy of exporting terror. Conversely Pakistan has successfully dodged the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) from blacklisting it despite a recent study by Oxford University and the Strategic Foresight Group (SFG) titled ‘Humanity at Risk-Global Terror Threat Indicant (GTTI)’ stating, “Afghan Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) pose the maximum threat to international security and Pakistan is placed on top of the list of countries with the highest number of terrorist bases and safe havens.” The study also states that there are “significant number of groups based in Afghanistan, which operate with the support of Pakistan.”
As for Trump’s speech on Thanksgiving at Bagram, there is little chance of ‘total victory’ given the ground realities in Afghanistan in 18 years of US presence. His statement “they (Talban) want to make a deal very badly” too sounds hollow since the Taliban are sitting pretty and have time on their side, while Trump wants to show progress on his pre-election promise of pulling out US troops from Afghanistan. Taliban has never agreed to ceasefire all these years and instead have mounted terror attacks before and during peace talks in various forums especially with the US, to show their indignation.
For the same reason, US-Taliban talks slated in the US during September were called off by Trump. A day after Trump made the claim that Taliban want to make a deal very badly, Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on November 30, “It is way too early to talk about the resumption of talks for now,” adding that the Taliban would give an official reaction later. He later said, “Our stance is still the same. If (formal) peace talks start, they will resume from where they had stopped.”
A significant development has been Taliban handing over two hostage professors (an American and an Australian) captured three years ago in exchange for three high profile insurgents: Anas Haqqani, brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani who heads Haqqani Network and is deputy leader of the Taliban, and; two other Haqqani commanders – Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Rashid in Afghan custody. Taliban also announced release of 10 captured Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) members. US Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has renewed efforts in negotiating with the Taliban at Doha in Qatar and in Afghanistan.
China is endeavoring to bring together Afghan government and the Taliban to discuss peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. How far this will succeed is yet to be seen because Taliban has not agreed to a ceasefire till now and shun talking to Afghan Government officials terming them lackeys of the US. The Afghan elections on September 28 saw poor turnout because of violence and Taliban threats and the political situation remains fluid with no announcement who among Ghani and his chief rival Abdullah Abdullah is the winner.
China certainly wants US troops out of Afghanistan. Beijing would like to ‘buy out’ the Taliban in persuading them to go for a sufficiently long ceasefire together with feigning sincerity in the reconciliation process to fool Trump into pulling out US troops from Afghanistan. For Taliban, securing release of Anas Haqqani is major milestone that they were trying past few years. This could possibly be the reason for them engaging with the US, waiting to gauge how negotiations proceed. But they may have many aces up their sleeves and another major terror attack can frustrate efforts for reconciliation. This does not mean that only Taliban have surprises in store.
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior announced on November 29 that security operation near Pakistan’s tribal belt resulted in the surrender of over 1,400 Daesh/ISIS-linked terrorists over past one and half month. The surrendered are mostly Pakistanis and 13 Indians. India plans to extradite the 13; hopefully their surrender was not by design for establishing sleeper cells in India.
Concurrently, a video has emerged of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIM), formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), showing dozens of cadres with captured Afghan military vehicles including several Humvees and captured weapons somewhere in Afghanistan. TIP is a largely a Uighur jihadist group that is affiliated with Al-Qaeda and also operates in Syria
. Additionally, photos from a training camp indicate an established facility within a fortified perimeter. Earlier there have been reports of some 7,000 Uighurs being trained in Iraq-Syria for deployment in Badakshan region of Afghanistan to keep Chinese influence in check. In 2018, US forces had struck a Pakistan training camp in Kunar province of Afghanistan.
TIM would be CIA’s ace to Beijing’s influence in check, keep Taliban under pressure and weaken the Pakistan-sponsored ISIS. The Great Game continues in Afghanistan with violence calibrated by all sides to preserve or raise instability depending on the requirement. Uzbek groups like the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), both operating in Syria, also claim training camps inside Afghanistan. KIB was established in proximity of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area in 2011 by fighters who had split from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
As the next US presidential election approaches, Trump would certainly like to reduce the US troop presence in Afghanistan. This could be a reduction to presence of some 8,600 troops – similar to level of some 9000 Obama had wanted. Further, Trump’s unpredictability may lower this to say 5000 troops only for training and air support to the ANSF. India needs to plan and prepare for such contingency rather than hoping Trump would not make such surprise announcement.