Maj Gen Ashok Mehta (Retd)
The US’ disengagement from Afghanistan has reportedly moved a step closer to fruition after a series of meetings among stakeholders in Doha and Beijing earlier this month. These were the seventh round of direct talks between the US and Taliban, the first intra-Afghan dialogue, a trilateral of the US, Russia and China, and a quadrilateral meeting — the trilateral plus Pakistan. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US-Pashtun points-person of these conversations, called the seventh round ‘most productive’ while the Taliban said, ‘We’re happy.’
India is conspicuously absent from these engagements, preoccupied as it has been with the elections and the obsession with Pakistan and US sanctions on Iran and Russia. The US wants a framework accord with Taliban by September 1 so that an interim government, including the Taliban, can oversee the twice-postponed presidential elections, due now on September 28. This is asking for the moon.
But with President Trump, anything is possible. He told Fox News that already half of the US troops in Afghanistan are back: ‘We were 16,000. We are now 9,000. I want to leave a strong intelligence-gathering team in Afghanistan.’ Presumably, also to monitor the implementation of any agreement with the Taliban. The temperamental Trump last year suddenly announced he was pulling out all troops from Syria and Afghanistan. Those orders were later reversed. He has done U-turns on Pakistan — in 2017, calling it a liability, full of lies and deceit; and this week, inviting Prime Minister Imran Khan to the White House for securing the peace deal with the Taliban, confirming Rawalpindi’s pivotal role in Afghanistan.
The seventh round of talks attempted to fix the nuts and bolts to the Framework Accord: timeframe for the withdrawal of US forces; assurance that the Afghan soil is not used for terror attacks against the US and its allies; direct talks with Kabul; and ceasefire. The Taliban want a deadline (likely between six months and two years) for the withdrawal of foreign forces first, before considering other issues. An agreement was reached after the talks — an eight-point agreement in the English version and a 10-point agreement in Pashto — with no mention of a US withdrawal in the former and protection of women’s rights excluded in the latter. Khalilzad emphasised this was a peace plan, not a cut-and-run or a withdrawal plan.
The intra-Afghan dialogue among 71 members, mainly from the Kabul High Peace Council that included women and the Taliban delegation, was fruitful. A joint statement affirmed: ‘They would respect and protect dignity of people, including women's rights (under Islamic framework) aided by the Taliban; secure life and property and try to bring civilian casualties to zero.’ The Qataris and Germans hosted this meeting in Doha during a recess in the US-Taliban talks.
The third meeting of the US-Russia-China trilateral and the first US-Russia-China-Pakistan quadrilateral were overseen by Khalilzad. The joint statement by the Quad read: ‘We seek an inclusive Afghan-led peace process that leads to an orderly and responsible transition with an inclusive political arrangement acceptable to all Afghans.’ Clearly, this is the most defining political statement between the two sides ever, emphasising the preservation of gains attained in the past 18 years. How far the Taliban will go along this vision is not known. The composition of the Quad reflects the importance of Russia and China (and Pakistan) in any Afghanistan peace deal. After a US withdrawal, these three regional players will have a key role in ensuring the Taliban’s compliance with the terms of the political settlement.
The Taliban Emir, Mulllah Haibatullah Akhundzada, recently issued an ominous statement saying that the Taliban do not believe in power-sharing, will expel foreign forces, dissolve the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) and implement Shariah. This voice of Allah is to placate the thousands of the Taliban involved in daily suicide attacks against the regime in Kabul. There is no way the Taliban will accept any peace plan not on their terms when they know they are winning the war and the US is determined to exit, is a predominant view that challenges the Khalilzad peace plan. Still, in the many years of reconciliation talks, the Khalilzad framework accord is the closest anyone has reached to breaking the stalemate.
Divisions among the Afghans continue even as the constitutional authority of the National Unity Government ended in May, further diluting its legitimacy. On the ground, the ANSF is taking a battering from the Taliban.
A key stakeholder, India does not figure in the peace talks. Its three-decade long economic investment amounting to $3 billion has not yielded any political dividend and influence, though goodwill and popularity is plentiful. India’s penchant for ‘wait and watch’ rather than being proactive has left it out in the cold. New Delhi has been slow to read the tea leaves. Its refusal to engage the Taliban even backchannel has been a big mistake. Dragging its feet over the reconciliation and re-integration of the Taliban reflected its preference for holding the moral high ground. After India pushed for on-time presidential polls, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, said: ‘Elections to the next President could be postponed.’
Belatedly, the blinkers were dropped. On May 21, then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, at the SCO Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Bishkek, finally abandoned the Afghan-owned/Afghan-led red line to ‘any process that facilitates peace and reconciliation.’ Last week, it re-imposed the red lines, including ‘respect for the constitution', when curiously German envoy on Afghanistan-Pakistan Markus Potzel, visiting New Delhi after the Doha talks, urged it to endorse the peace plan.
Surprisingly, Khalilzad has skipped India again. New Delhi has invested considerable time and resources in isolating Pakistan, which now has three P5 members on its side in Afghanistan. India’s best bet, even at this stage, is to engage the Taliban which the Army Chief, Gen Bipin Rawat, has advocated, and unite the Afghans in Kabul, where 16 contenders are vying for the President’s post, including incumbent Ashraf Ghani.
Trump will desperately want Khalilzad to deliver the deal this year so that he can withdraw more US troops before the year-end, setting the stage for a complete withdrawal of American soldiers before his re-election in 2020. This is a high-risk plan which can easily unravel. India has to get back into the game after losing the plot.