What Delhi Must Do If It’s Called On In US-Taliban Peace Process

Delhi’s effort should be to persuade friends / allies to keep morale of Afghan Armed Forces at a reasonable level.

Updated02 Mar 2020, 11:33 AM IST
Opinion
5 min read

As the Taliban signed a peace deal with the United States in Doha, cautious celebrations were apparent in Jalalabad and Kabul. Further to the east, the Taliban were also celebrating. After all, the chief negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, had just declared victory, and the Taliban website was showcasing minute to minute updates of the conference.

For the Afghan people, the deal opens a possibility of an end to more than forty years of war. For the Taliban, it’s the probable prospect of power. The trouble is, that those two expectations are probably incompatible.

Snapshot
  • For the Afghan people, the deal opens a possibility of an end to more than forty years of war. For the Taliban, it’s the probable prospect of power.
  • President Trump’s views were much like that of Biden, which was why his ‘Afghanistan and South Asia Strategy’ called out Pakistan as a ‘terrorist haven’.
  • Foreign Secretary Shringla’s presence in Kabul a day before the agreement was signed, seemed to be a show of support at a time when critics are sure to decry India as the ‘loser’ in the Afghan pot boiler.
  • Delhi’s effort should be to persuade friends and partners on the pressing need to keep the morale of the Afghan Armed Forces at a reasonable level.

Objectives of US-Taliban Agreement

The agreement, signed by veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad and Abdul Ghani Baradar, is fairly simple. There are four mutually reinforcing objectives:

  • that Afghan soil never be used against the US and its allies (not friends)
  • the withdrawal of all US troops within 135 days
  • negotiations with the Afghan government in ten days
  • a ceasefire thereafter, with ‘enforcement mechanisms’ at each level

Defence Secretary Mark Esper is already on record that the US will not hesitate to nullify the agreement if each of these requirements are not met.

Fears that references in the document to ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ would give legitimacy to the Taliban, are somewhat nullified by the accompanying phrase “whom the US does not recognise as a state”.

The last paragraph however, says that both seek ‘positive relations’ with one another. In diplomatic terms, no government can seek any kind of relations with any entity but a formal state. Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Esper signed another agreement with Kabul, which is being kept completely low profile, which is rather a contradiction in terms. Statements by Secretary Pompeo (who did not sign the agreement) and briefings by unnamed officials, indicated that apart from hand holding by the Norwegians, other countries like Germany, Uzbekistan, and Indonesia, among others, would play a role, with the US remaining closely involved at every stage.

Afghanistan Peace Deal: What Took So Long?

Friends, analysts and countrymen of Afghanistan may be pardoned for wondering why it took the US all of eighteen years to reach this agreement, which could easily have been reached when the US first reached out to the Taliban in December 2010. Informed critics point to the ‘bureaucratic politics of national security’ in decision-making. A review of the ‘Afghanistan Papers’ brought out by The Washington Post, points to the lack of a clear objective, poor situational awareness, and worst of all, a ‘woefully’ deficient intelligence.

As Rumsfeld put it: “I have no visibility of who the bad guys are...” That’s rather astonishing, given that every man, woman and child on the street knew that most of the bad guys were sitting in Pakistan. That included not just Taliban leaders, but also the majority of Al Qaeda leaders, the narcotics kingpins, weapons suppliers, and most of all, those bad guys who ‘terminated’ any Taliban leader who wanted peace with Kabul. Mullah Baradar was lucky.

His attempt to patch things up with President Karzai only led him to be imprisoned in Pakistan for eight long years.

Given this reality of where most of the bad guys were clustered, it’s unclear why Vice President Joe Biden’s repeated proposals for focusing on a ‘small counter-terrorism force’ made up largely of Special Forces operating from the sea, was never seriously considered. His plan had its difficulties, but his view of a clear ‘three dimensional war’ involving Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Al Qaeda, had the virtue of a clear objective — that of defeating terrorists. Instead, strategy through the years was focused on defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, nation-building, and establishing a form of democracy, was doomed from the start, particularly since Afghan ‘democracy’ tended to follow a model of buying important posts, and then using American aid and drug money to recoup the cost.

Worse, ‘strategy’ also seemed to demand a continuous eroding of the position of elected governments, and a chopping and changing of the Constitution to do it.

Is Pakistan Feeling the Pressure?

President Trump’s views were much like that of Biden, which was why his ‘Afghanistan and South Asia Strategy’ called out Pakistan as a ‘terrorist haven’, tying that to the billions in aid provided by the US. That changed, as US aid almost dried up, and the Financial Action Task Force began to turn Pakistan’s financial book-keeping upside down. US criticism of Pakistan and a deliberate showcasing of proximity to India would have added to the pressure.

But a senior US official probably hit the nail on the head, when he observed that it was probably the cutting off of military aid that hit Islamabad — or rather Rawalpindi — the most.

Oddly, resumption of training was decided when Pompeo called Pakistani Army Chief Bajwa, just after the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Meanwhile, Pompeo, in his comments after the signing of the agreement, made his ‘expectation’ clear of Pakistani cooperation in the future. It’s a different question whether Pakistan feels itself to be under pressure. The Taliban certainly don’t. US official reports recorded a huge rise in Taliban attacks and spread by 2019 end.

US-Taliban Peace Process: Delhi Must Keep Old Friends, Allies Close

In sum, no one is certain that the hard fought agreement will bring peace. Hard diplomatic negotiations lie ahead starting 10 March, with both the legitimate Islamic Republic and the ‘Islamic Emirate’ sitting down for talks. One is legitimate but has been corroded by the Americans and its own corruption. The other is illegitimate, but has the confidence of a victor. As negotiations begin in this lopsided contest, Kabul may want Delhi to weigh in.

Foreign Secretary Shringla’s presence in Kabul a day before the agreement was signed, seemed to be a show of support at a time when critics are sure to decry India as the ‘loser’ in the Afghan pot boiler. There will also be calls for India to be directly involved in the negotiation process. That is not strictly necessary. Far better to stay in the shadows, even while remaining ready to provide financial support where needed. Secretary Esper is reported to have said that the US would continue to support the Afghan Security forces. Given the prevailing US mood however, this is by no means certain.

Delhi’s effort should be to persuade friends and partners on the pressing need to keep the morale of the Afghan Armed Forces at a reasonable level, where they are at least assured of a future.

The forces have been the backbone of Kabul’s precarious stability. It could however just as easily go the other way, and become a prime factor to Afghan disintegration. Delhi has to keep its ear on the ground, and its hand on its purse as the negotiations unfold, even while keeping a little black book open for old friends and allies in this endeavour. They shouldn’t be hard to find.

(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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Published: 02 Mar 2020, 08:41 AM IST
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