Signing of the US-Taliban deal by US Special Representative Zalmay Khalizad and Mullah Abdul Gani Baradar on behalf of Taliban at Doha, Qatar on February 29 had all the trappings of a mega show. Though termed a peace deal, a better description would be to call it a charade of peace deal. In 2009, US President Obama announced a surge of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan in addition to the over 20,000 additional troops that he’d deployed there weeks into his presidency. This led to approximately 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan (lasting just before the 2012 election) resulting in US taking territory away from the Taliban and its allies in the south, but no deal was sought with the Taliban. Later in May 2014, Obama announced he will leave 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan through much 2015, eventually to be reduced to 5000, but left decision on further reduction of US troop levels to the next US President.
Taliban never sought a peace deal. Ceasefire was President Trump’s prerequisite for talks till recently. But with pressure on Trump with approaching elections and his pre-election promise to end America’s longest war, Zalmay Khalizad pulled out a rabbit out of Islamabad’s hat for a 7-day reduction in violence as the prerequisite, with Trump and Mike Pompeo applauding the magical feat. Taliban attacked Afghan security forces in Balkh province and some other places in Afghanistan on the very first day of the 7-day reduction in violence period – February 22. The Taliban spokesman confirmed these attacks but said these should not be considered a violation of the understanding, which was not a ceasefire. Can there be a bigger charade than calling this a peace deal.
On the same day (February 22) Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistani foreign minister gloated that Pakistan was successful in constructing a road map for the Taliban peace deal. Pakistani PM Imran Khan dashed off to Qatar two days before the signing ceremony perhaps to thank the Emir for having convinced Zalmay Khalizad and Trump-Pompeo (through CENTCOM?) that only Pakistan could clinch the deal and Pakistan’s credentials as a responsible nation deserves a special niche in Capitol Hill, forgetting Pakistan’s double-games. Little wonder Trump in India recently spoke about very good relations with Pakistan and Imran Khan. Imran Khan is so ecstatic with the deal making him Trump’s blue-eyed that he has even invited the US to invest in the CPEC.
There are some 12,000 US troops in Afghanistan and some 17,000 troops from 39 NATO countries. Under the US-Taliban deal, within the first 135 days US will reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 8,600, with allies also drawing down their forces proportionately. The US has committed to withdraw from Afghanistan all its military forces as also troops of its allies and coalition forces within 14 months of the agreement – which means by April 30, 2021. The pullout is contingent upon Taliban keeping their promises – prevent terror and not showing bad faith to talks. Pompeo urged Taliban to “keep your promises to cut ties with al-Qaeda”. Baradar’s emphasis was on withdrawal of all foreign forces enabling the Islamic regime embark on new prosperous life.
The bit about Al Qaeda takes the charade further because western scholars have been pointing out that Haqqanis are Al Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda chief declared support to Taliban years back. The deal also provides for a prisoner swap (5,000 Taliban prisoners to 1,000 Afghan security force prisoners) by March 10, when talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are due to start. But the political crisis in Afghanistan could be problematic. On February 18, Afghanistan’s Election Commission declared President Ghani winner in the September 2018 elections with 50.64% votes and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, runner-up with 39.52%. Latter has refused to accept the results amid allegations of rigging. US has declined to recognize competing election victory claims by both but as of February 25, Afghan government had agreed to postpone President Ghani’s inauguration to a second term.
Who in Afghan Government will talk to the Taliban in the intra-Afghan talks, what will be the format and how will the talks proceed considering that Taliban has always referred to the Afghan government as American stooges? Whether these talks will have international observers remains unclear at present. In case observers are part of the intra-Afghan talks, the US and Pakistan would be there for certain, but would India be included? Much is in Indian media about Indian representation at inking of the US-Taliban deal on February 29 but then invitations were sent to some 30 nations.
The US-Taliban deal was under discussion past 18 months. In September 2019 three former US envoys to Afghanistan (Ryan Crocker, James Cunningham and James Dobbins) warned that the US-Taliban agreement (then draft) on the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country is a mistake that could unleash a more dangerous civil war. Crocker specifically said, “To negotiate a deal without the presence of the Afghan government, something the Taliban has long insisted on, is a concession that effectively means for the Taliban that the United States is done in Afghanistan.”
The intra-Afghan dialogue may be delayed but the deal clears the US pulling out some 5,000 troops by June, which would be a boost for Trump’s election. Whatever the ground situation in second half of 2020, US will have to make do with reduced level of troops even if violence levels go up. Taliban hatred for the US may well see such a situation when Trump’s hands would be tied. The intra-Afghan talks would be in the backdrop of Taliban exercising effective control over 12.3% territory of Afghanistan and influencing 70% territory, increasing territorial gains and the fact that Al Qaeda (other face of Haqqani Network), estimated 1.5 billion annual income from opium, and Islamic State (IS) have colluded elsewhere, and in Afghanistan their clash if at all is for securing areas that are rich in minerals.
Writing in New York Times on February 20, Sirajuddin Haqqani, chief of Haqqani Taliban and deputy leader of Taliban denied presence of foreign groups/terrorists in Afghanistan despite periodic reports by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan attributing killings in Afghanistan to not only Taliban and Haqqani Network but also organized armed groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-i-Mohammed, Hezb-e-Islami, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, Daesh (ISIS) etc. In addition, Pakistani regulars and Mujahids have been operating in Afghanistan in conjunction Taliban, which has been established time and again by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS).
Following Obama’s dictum in 2014 to pullout US troops from Afghanistan, an article titled ‘Explaining Pakistan’s Confidence, in War on the Rocks stated, “When Lt-Gen Asad Durrani, a former head of Pakistan’s ISI agency, delivered a speech on Afghanistan in London last month, it was hard to miss the note of triumph. Afghanistan, he said, had already seen off two major world powers – the British Empire in the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th. Now a third, the United States, was heading for the exit. For anyone who believes Pakistan’s aim in Afghanistan all along has been to turn the clock back to Sept 10, 2001 – when it exercised its influence over the country through its Taliban allies – it could almost have been a victory speech.”
What would be the ground situation over the next few months is unpredictable including direction and conclusion of the intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban holding a position of strength. American actions in run up to US presidential elections and beyond will be significant. To what extent US will reduce troops or completely pull out, leaving only embassy elements needs to be viewed in backdrop the abovementioned warnings by former US envoys to Afghanistan. The Taliban will likely go after non-Pashtuns far more savagely than the killings of Shias and others that have been ongoing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is also the question of women’s rights and democracy when Taliban get upper hand or control of Afghanistan..
Finally, is the prophecy made by former Pakistani Major Agha H Amin who wrote in his article ‘India and Pakistan make Peace’ on August 12, 2012 saying, “Utopians in India are jubilant that Pakistan has made peace with India. Nothing in reality can be farther from the truth. …..The real picture of true intentions of the Pakistani military will emerge when the US withdraws from Afghanistan. This will be the time when the Russians, Iranians and Indians will have no choice but to support the Northern Alliance against Pakistan sponsored Taliban who regard all Shias, Ismailis, non-Pashtuns, moderate Pashtuns as infidels who deserve to be massacred… There is no doubt that Pakistan will be a semi autonomous Chinese province by 2030 or so… Pakistani Baluchistan by 2030 would be a completely Chinese run show”. Readers can draw their own conclusions.