The Afghan Peace process seems to be a un-ending process with regional nations like India, Pakistan and Iran watching very keenly. There is hope of a breakthrough and Pakistan has the maximum to gain, but will India allow Pakistan-backed Taliban back to power? EurAsian Times stumbled upon a blog from Wion News.
President Trump last December, unsurprisingly, did a U-turn on Afghanistan. Having been reluctantly persuaded by his Generals to stay the course, in a policy speech on Afghanistan in August 2017, he lashed out at Pakistan saying all it has given the US is lies and deceit after receiving $31 billion and praised India for its constructive role in Afghanistan.
Then Defence Secretary James Mattis issued a ‘last chance’ ultimatum to Pakistan to act against Taliban sanctuaries which did not work despite intensified drone strikes in Pakistan.
Soon, Trump did another U-turn: embraced Pakistan criticised India for doing five minutes of work like building libraries in Afghanistan and sought an exit by appointing Zalmay Khalilzad as an interlocutor with Taliban to work out an exit deal. So far according to the US, four issues have been discussed – US withdrawal from Afghanistan;
Taliban pledge that Afghanistan will not become a base for Al Qaeda and its affiliates for attacks on the US and its allies; ceasefire and composition of a future Afghan government including direct talks between Taliban and Kabul.
The Taliban says only two issues constitute the framework accord. Equally pressing problems like interim government, elections, constitution, exchange of prisoners and lifting the ban on Taliban leaders are also to be addressed.
This kind of peace and reconciliation talks are called talking while fighting or vice versa as a conventional peace process is sequenced roughly like this: ceasefire; disarmament (integration of armies and arms); constitutional arrangements; and elections. The presidential elections have been postponed from April to July to September and maybe indefinitely to accommodate the Taliban.
Similarly, the results of the October 2018 parliamentary elections delayed by two years have not been finalised. Conspicuously, the Afghan government has been kept out of the loop in the present US-Taliban series of engagements, making a mockery of the much-touted peace process being Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. This reflects the urgency Trump attaches to a quick troop withdrawal – half the 14,000 soldiers before the end of the year before his re-election bid and the remainder within two to three years.
The US and Afghanistan have signed in 2012 a Strategic Partnership Agreement according to which, America will not abandon the country militarily or financially for years after 2014 which was the US deadline for foreign forces withdrawal. Then in 2014, a bilateral security agreement was signed that provides US troops access to military bases like Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan upto 2024 and beyond. Will Trump forsake the retention of strategic assets in Afghanistan? Is this being kept under wraps?
If the mercurial Trump were to pull out like he reportedly announced recently from Syria and Afghanistan – both denied and later and modified – it could prove catastrophic. The Mattis exit was catalysed by this decision setting the cat among the pigeons in the region. James Dobbins, a former US envoy to Afghanistan, fears it could lead to a civil war – back to 1996? Probably not. Gen Kenneth Mackenzie of CENTCOM has said Afghan National Security Forces will dissolve without US support. In 2014, a report published by Special Inspector General Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) had made the assessment that ANSF would be capable of resisting Taliban independently after December 2014 when International Security Assistance Forces combat role ended but would require US air support and assistance in casualty evacuation. When Konduz became the first provincial capital to fall to Taliban in 2014, all hell broke loose in Pentagon, sparking the fear of a strategic collapse.
With the Taliban staging spectacular suicide attacks and enhancing their territorial control (only 54 per cent of 407 districts were under control/influence of government in October 2018 against 72 per cent in November 2005). ANSF casualties are averaging 120 to 130 a month with complete companies capitulating. Instead of correcting the deficiency of unprepared ANSF in the lead since December 2014, US is considering further cuts and exit. In mid-2009, President Obama had observed that if Afghanistan falls to Taliban it will once again become an Al Qaeda base. On 2 January 2019, unpredictable Trump made the following convoluted observation on Afghanistan. ‘Pakistan is there…it should be fighting. But Russia should be fighting too, to prevent terrorists from going to Russia…and India….Why are we there. And we’re 6000 miles away !’
The Afghans are convinced that Taliban pumped by Pakistan is taking the US for a royal ride. NSA Hamdullah Mohib, addressing UNSC last month, criticised the US peace process, especially Khalilzad stressing: ‘peace at any cost is not acceptable’. Former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, has doubts about the sincerity of the Taliban, adding it did not represent the Afghan people but Pakistan. Will Trump spring a surprise by ordering a hasty withdrawal or put in place, a mechanism that ensures that the gains of the last 17 years under US leadership are preserved?
India has been outpaced by developments in Afghanistan mainly due to an impetuous Trump. Army Chief, Gen Bipin Rawat’s advice to engage the Taliban even at this late stage, has been ignored. A backchannel should have been started in 2014-15 after the Konduz debacle. India must update its contingency plans to prevent the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul by force and protect its strategic assets including 5000 Indians. India’s only foreign air base at Ayni in Tajikistan where 100 IAF personnel and engineers are located, must be factored for utilisation after consultations with Russia which has the last word on its use.
Since 2002, India’s right of use has been unclear and combat aircraft have never been stationed there. The Chinese have lately acquired a military base in Tajikistan with its troops operating in the Wakhan corridor. The present government has made national security its prime election issue acting boldly against Pakistan and China but losing sight of Afghanistan. India’s diminution in Afghanistan will be a jolt to its prestige and image in the region.
For Khalilzad though finding all the pieces to fit into the peace and reconciliation puzzle will be an uphill task and could take time, even as strategic patience is not a virtue Trump is blessed with.