On September 2, US special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad revealed details of an ‘in-principle’ agreement between the US and the Taliban centered on an initial timetable of withdrawal of around 5,400 of a total of 14,000 US troops from five bases in Afghanistan in 135 days (along with ancillary agreements including the start of intra-Afghan talks somewhere in Europe in two weeks). In an unusual move for retired officials, nine senior former US diplomats deeply involved in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban from power after 9/11 in November 2001, including a former deputy secretary of state and director of national intelligence, a special representative for Afghanistan, five ambassadors and others, posted a statement on the website of the Atlantic Council on September 3, expressing serious concerns over the hasty and premature withdrawal before ‘real’ peace in Afghanistan, and its impact on US security and values.
Though presenting US interests, the statement highlights doubts and concerns about the Taliban’s willingness to accept a peaceful settlement, the high probability of a return to civil war similar to the 1990s following the withdrawal of Soviet forces if the US pursues this course, the risk that terrorist groups like IS and Al Qaeda would exploit the unrest to expand their influence, and the likelihood that regional players like Pakistan, Iran and Russia would get involved and fuel the fighting. It counselled the US to not undercut the legitimate Afghan government in the negotiations, to go ahead with the elections on September 28, and allow the Afghan people to make their democratic choice rather than impose an interim government that would be highly contested and a recipe for instability.
More importantly, these are also existential concerns for the majority of Afghans who have been on the frontline of the war against terrorism on behalf of the rest of the world since 9/11. India too shares these concerns. Through its development projects, humanitarian activities and people-to-people ties reflected in educational opportunities, medical treatment and training facilities for the ANDSF and Afghan cricket team amongst others, India has been one of the most faithful and consistent supporters of post-Taliban Afghanistan. Despite urgings from various quarters, not least the US, India is the only major country in the region to not extend public recognition to the Taliban as a legitimate political force until an intra-Afghan agreement is reached.
That key elements of the agreement, after nine rounds of negotiations lasting close to a year since the US opened direct talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, bypassing the elected Afghan government, were only ‘shown’ to Afghan leaders without sharing a copy, and disclosed through a television interview to a private channel rather than an official announcement with the Afghan government, is in itself telling. It reflects a breakdown of trust between the US and Afghan government, a lack of transparency and wider consultation over a matter of vital concern to Afghans—the unilateral US decision to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan after 18 years of sometimes blow-hot, blow-cold war against the Taliban together with the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), regardless of their bilateral strategic partnership and security agreements under which US troops are stationed in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is officially ‘studying’ the draft agreement, while a Taliban spokesperson has dismissed Khalilzad’s announcement as a “bluff”. According to news reports from Afghanistan, President Ghani is planning to convey the Afghan government’s objections to the plan directly to President Trump.
Coming as it did alongside continued terrorist attacks against civilians in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan, and Taliban military offensives against provincial capitals in the north, the announcement has backfired badly against the Americans.
Reactions on social media and news outlets reveal that the ‘deal’ is being widely perceived as a sell-out and betrayal of Afghanistan and Afghans to the Taliban and Pakistan. A recent report suggests that US secretary of state Pompeo has declined to sign the agreement on behalf of the US as it is ‘too risky’. The House Foreign Relations Committee has summoned Khalilzad to Washington for a testimony on the ‘agreement’ to satisfy the House that the US is “negotiating peace, not simply a withdrawal”. According to fresh reports, special envoy Khalilzad, and US military commander for Afghanistan, General Miller, have dashed to Doha for a fresh round of talks with the Taliban.
The interview also touched upon other elements of the negotiations with the Taliban that, the US has maintained until now, are part of a composite agreement in which ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’. These comprise counter-terrorism guarantees in return for US withdrawal, a comprehensive ceasefire, and intra-Afghan talks. That commitment appears to be weakening.
On each of these remaining fronts, disclosures were weak. Khalilzad was evasive on the timeline and sequencing of the withdrawal of the remaining troops, though it is an open secret that President Trump would like it completed before the November 2020 US presidential elections. There are known differences expressed as far up as President Trump over a residual intelligence and counter-terrorism presence, and their numbers to guarantee Taliban compliance on denial of Afghan territory to international terrorist outfits.
Technical negotiations by security experts on guarantees over the use of Afghan territory against US targets, satisfactory counter-terrorism actions and targets, including those of Al Qaeda and Daesh, and verification or monitoring of such actions and guarantees, will also be complicated. Though the president could override such concerns for the ‘deal’, given the backlash created by the announcement and Taliban attacks, it seems unlikely that President Trump will be able to sign the deal.
Whether or not the US goes through with the ‘agreement’, the announcement reveals that the US is, in effect, detaching its war against terrorism from the Afghan war against terrorism, which has been the bedrock of its intervention and presence in Afghanistan after 9/11. It is ignoring the link between a fundamentalist political system that promotes and justifies terrorism and a progressive one that fights terrorism; and trading domestic or cross-border terrorism against Afghanistan for guarantees regarding international terrorism directed at the US. It is saying that Pak-sponsored Taliban terrorism (including the Haqqani network that has frequently targeted the US) against Afghanistan is Afghanistan’s problem, not the USA’s. It raises the question: if the US is not there for Afghanistan’s security, why are they there at all? Many US allies in Afghanistan argue that if the Americans have to leave, a ‘no deal’ exit would be better than any deal that hands over Afghanistan to the Taliban and Pakistan.
The US position also compartmentalises the war against terrorism. This can only work to the latter’s advantage. The various terrorist groups are after all in-laws, if not cousins. It is difficult to imagine them denying sanctuary to their kin, as they did before 9/11. It is a staggering conceit to think that this kinship can be weakened in favor of what they see as an occupying power that is the anti-thesis of its values.
This US weakness in the talks is also apparent in the disclosures regarding a ceasefire and intra-Afghan talks. On the former, the US seems to have for now settled on a ‘virtual’ ceasefire or ‘reduction’ in violence in Kabul and its environs (Parwan where the Bagram air base is located), though that has not prevented the Taliban from a major bombing of the ‘green zone’ housing foreigners, in which dozens of Afghan civilians were killed even as Khalilzad was concluding his interview with Tolo TV; and another savage car bombing in downtown Kabul on September 5.
This followed major Taliban offensives against Kunduz and Pul-e-Khumri in the north, in which the Taliban entered houses and used civilians as human shields for attacks against security forces. Suicide attacks against those capable of leading an anti-Taliban resistance continue—most recently, against two colonels who led the recovery of Kunduz and an anti-Taliban commander in Badakhshan. Vice presidential candidate Amrullah Saleh narrowly survived a complex attack on his life just weeks back. While US forces have backed the ANDSF in military counter-offensives and the US has issued pro-forma condemnations of such attacks, the US has not let them come in the way of the ‘deal’. Assurances of a reduction in violence, regardless of facts on the ground and kick-starting intra-Afghan talks, are seen as good enough to short-circuit the upcoming elections.
The draft also sets a two-week timeline for the start of intra-Afghan talks at a European capital (probably Oslo) along with caveats that the Afghan delegation should be ‘inclusive’ and ‘authoritative’ even as the Taliban continue to insist that they will not negotiate with the ‘puppet’ Afghan government. The government maintains that the delegation will not be empowered to take decisions. That would be done by a loya jirga (grand assembly) and the Afghan Parliament. How a non-official delegation that the US has set conditions on can at the same time be ‘authoritative’ is not clear. Meanwhile, reflecting their difficulties in putting together an acceptable delegation, the Afghan government has reportedly composed a 15-member team for such talks drawn from government and civil society, but not announced their names to avoid challenges to its composition.
The most plausible explanation for this unseemly hurry to announce what seems to be a partial, one-sided and half-baked agreement at best may be the presidential elections scheduled to be held on September 28. Both the US and Taliban apprehend that a successful election could give the republican order legitimacy, result in a victor opposed to a total walk-over to the Taliban, and subvert their plans for an interim or transitional government and a power-sharing agreement that would help troop withdrawal. Though not perhaps conspired, both the Taliban offensives and US announcement of a deal on withdrawal and intra-Afghan talks in two weeks can be seen as efforts to prevent, sabotage or preempt the elections and constitutional process.
Although few Afghans believe that elections will be held or that they will be credible in the face of such uncertainty, confusion and open Taliban threats, the marginalisation of the Afghan government, negative messages coming out of the US-Taliban talks, and the unseemly sight of senior Afghan political figures rushing to Doha, Moscow and Islamabad to explore alternative political arrangements at the expense of the government, have discredited the former and generated sympathy for an otherwise prickly and unpopular President Ghani.
The announcement of the draft deal may well be the wake-up call for Afghans to rally behind the elections in general. Besides Ghani, CEO Abdullah Abdullah is a strong contender supported by the anti-Ghani camp that has also benefitted from the disintegration of another strong contender, former minister Hanif Atmar’s election campaign, while former NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil and others who have maintained their distance from such talks, remain credible candidates. The message of Afghan ‘honour’ and dignity has been resounding with a population weary of violence and cynical of political ‘deals’ with Americans, Russians or Pakistanis.
The government is determined to push this advantage to ensure elections, gain legitimacy and strengthen its hands in future negotiations with both the US and the Taliban. A decent turnout in the polls would vindicate them. This is still not impossible. A recent poll conducted by the Afghan media organisation Pajhwok revealed that 76 per cent of Afghan voters would risk insecurity to vote in the elections that they see as vital to their future.
Under the circumstances, there is not even a remote chance that any scenario emerging from the ‘deal’ will bring peace or stability to Afghanistan. On the contrary, the parallel processes set in motion by the US and Russia with the support of Pakistan (which China too has joined) to bring a still unreconstructed Taliban into the power structure in Afghanistan through the back door have not only aggravated internal political and ethnic fault-lines and rivalries, but also added to the dissensions within the Taliban, which are now contributing to the strengthening of the Daesh.
The post-Bonn republican order has never been as frayed as now. Any intra-Afghan ‘deal’ negotiated by a handful of individuals lacking legal or political authority and under a US-Pakistan-Taliban veto will lack credibility and legitimacy, and promptly be rejected by political forces who are unrepresented. No interim or transitional arrangement emerging from it will survive internal pressures and contradictions or a Taliban takeover that is inevitable once the US withdrawal nears completion. Integrating the Taliban into the Afghan security forces will inevitably create strains in the ANDSF, leading to its fragmentation. Any withdrawal of funding after the pullout would be disastrous.
Unlike in the mid-1990s when the Taliban were briefly seen as a pious and stabilising force over the warring Mujahideen factions, the Taliban today are seen as a brutal, pitiless, anti-national and terrorist force propped up by Pakistan. With the help of the international community, including India, a new generation has come of age since 2001. It has tasted the benefits of relative peace, stability, democracy, education, civic rights, open media, culture and new opportunities, and will not suffer repressive Taliban rule lying down. New leaders are emerging in place of the martyred Ahmed Shah Massoud, Ustad Rabbani, General Raziq and countless others, who will lead the fight against the Taliban. One cannot rule out the possibility that in the event of a takeover, their struggle against the Taliban may take on an anti-Pakistan character, echoing resistance against the British and Soviets in the past.
Alternatively, the outcome will be a state of war far worse than the intra-Mujahideen fighting or the repressive peace of the Taliban of the 1990s. Its outcome, following the civil wars in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya and Yemen, could be far worse than the Taliban. Its shadow would extend everywhere.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining: the Afghan elections. It is a fair bet that if the elections happen, Afghans will risk their lives to vote for an Islamic republic over the Islamic emirates of the Taliban. They will also strengthen republican forces in future negotiations for peace with the Taliban, which should remain the eventual objective. With the Khalilzad plan virtually discredited, India, that has been keeping a low profile so far, should come out and put its weight behind a free, fair and credible electoral process that gives all candidates a fair chance to test their respective peace plans with the electorate. The European Union has also been advocating this. Only such a process would give legitimacy to any future peace agreement. A new post-Bonn leadership could emerge. Ironically, the backlash against the draft deal may well be special envoy Khalilzad’s lasting contribution to peace in Afghanistan.
India should also use the undoubted respect that Prime Minister Modi has gained from President Trump and President Putin to persuade US, NATO and Russia amongst others to permit an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process free from international rivalries. The US should commit to departure once that process is irreversible. Negotiations with the Taliban will have to change track from power-sharing to demonstrating their Afghan nationalism by reconciling with fellow Afghans and freeing themselves from foreign tutelage. The ANDSF may need to be restructured into an effective fighting force capable of standing on its own feet. India would be able to join and back international efforts for peace in Afghanistan.
Regardless of whether the international community follows, this is an opportunity for India to show leadership on Afghanistan and follow up Prime Minister Modi’s expression in support of Afghanistan from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day. India should announce its support for the September 28 elections forthwith—it will be a huge morale booster for Afghans. India should not hesitate, for the alternative is a constitutional vacuum and chaos.
(The author is a former ambassador of India to Afghanistan. Views expressed are personal.)