Because of unprecedented concessions given to Taliban, the US will be able to withdraw the bulk of its forces before the presidential elections due in November.
Propelled by the compulsions of domestic policies in an election year, the United States has signed a so-called peace deal with the Taliban, which, in fact, may only be a face saver for the US and not a peace deal for Afghanistan. The equations emerging out of this deal at Doha on 29 February do appear to have very strong imbalances. Firstly, the title of the deal itself indicates a certain degree of compulsion as well as mistrust, as it has been signed between the USA and the “Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the USA as a State and is known as Taliban”. Secondly, a joint declaration has been released simultaneously between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America. As may be appreciated, the present government of Afghanistan is not a party to the deal with the Taliban, while the latter is not a party to the joint declaration. In fact, the Taliban does not even recognise the present Afghan government. On top of it, post signing, hostile reactions from the government of Afghanistan on the release of prisoners appear to have brought the operationalisation of agreements already under a cloud.
One of the most important points in the US agreement with Taliban (Part 3, Clause 3) mentions that the former will seek economic cooperation for reconstruction with the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government, as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations, but will not intervene in its internal affairs. This only confirms what President Trump had stated during his press conference in New Delhi on 25 February. The language of this provision in the agreement unambiguously points towards a new post-settlement government, which leaves the future of Ashraf Ghani, the incumbent President, uncertain. Though, the elections in Afghanistan were held sometime in September last year, the results were declared only in February, earlier this year, after a lapse of five months, declaring Ghani with 50.6% of the votes as the winner. This result has already been rejected by Abdullah Abdullah, the main rival, who has declared himself as the President despite winning only 39.5% of the votes. Considering that just 10% of the electorate had exercised their franchise, Ghani also cannot claim a wide support base, in fact it is as meagre as only 5% of the adult Afghans.
In Part 2 of the same agreement, the Taliban is shown to be committing to deal with asylum seekers as per international migration law. This along with the wording of certain other provisions in the agreement is such, as if the US has already reconciled to the fact that the Taliban, post settlement, is bound to take over the reins of government in Afghanistan. Not only this, perhaps it is also for the first time that the United States has committed to start diplomatic engagement with other members of the United Nations Security Council and Afghanistan, to remove members of the Taliban from the sanctions list with the aim of achieving this objective by 29 May 2020. On its own part, also, the US has committed to initiate administrative review of current sanctions against the Taliban with the goal of removing them by 27 August 2020. In addition to these very significant concessions given to an unrecognised entity, there is a commitment for release of 5,000 prisoners over the next three months, with 1,000 being released from either side by 10 March, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations.
As a result of all these concessions of an unprecedented nature, the US will be able to withdraw the bulk of its forces before the elections due in November. At the same time, let us not forget that they have put all eggs in the basket of Taliban, which might raise the hackles of other ethnic groups like Tajiks and Uzbeks, who were the main constituents of the earlier anti Taliban Northern Alliance, under Ahmed Shah Masood.
On its part, Taliban has committed (Part 2, Clause 1) not to allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including Al Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies. The term “allies” has not been defined, but it is obvious that it means the coalition partners (NATO countries) of the US, with uniformed presence in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, India has been steadfast in its support earlier for Hamid Karzai and now Ghani and would not like to believe that we had all along been backing the wrong horse. Maybe, as we were trying to push up our infrastructural investments, there was no alternative in sight. While one cannot be aware of backchannel operations with the Taliban, if any, it is clearly a situation where we had aspired to be on the high table but have ended virtually on the fringes. We had faced more or less a similar situation in the early 1990s when Najibullah was overthrown.
Even as Pakistan would be gloating at India’s diplomatic discomfiture, China may be getting ready to fill the vacuum after the withdrawal of American forces. Besides the geo-strategic importance of Afghanistan, its unexplored mineral wealth has also been very tempting. It is known to have vast resources of natural gas, besides rare and critical minerals like lithium, cobalt and tantalum. Copper, iron and gold are also found in abundance, besides lapis lazuli. So far, their commercial exploitation has been extremely difficult on account of the competing economic interests of various tribal groups and that is where the role of Taliban as an overlord comes in. A pliable Taliban regime would help the cause of Pakistan—a country obsessed with a deep state syndrome and creation of a vassal state. In a way, this may also facilitate addressing the problems posed by the Durand Line. In the long run, such an arrangement would also suit the interests of the Chinese who have extensive investments in the region through CPEC projects as well as the BRI.
All this leads to a situation where the investments made by India during the last 18 years would be under a threat, accordingly, our Foreign Minister has already stated that western powers should ensure that these are not jeopardised. Presently, with a secure Afghanistan in Pakistan’s backyard, Kashmir should be ready to face a much greater threat.
Dr K.K. Paul is a former Governor and a Senior Advisor at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation.