Sharing an article of mine published in Amity Journal of Defence & Strategic Studies a six monthly Journal of Amity University. Taliban’s offensive against the capital of Helmand Province amidst talks with their negotiators remaining at the table in Qatar has shaken the possibilities of immediate withdrawal of US forces.
Notwithstanding President Trump’s intention to bring all U.S. troops home by Christmas, as an election promise, and having gone through prolonged negotiations and diplomatic efforts to settle the 19-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, the peace process seems taking a U turn. The military analysis of its professionals doesn’t match with President Trump’s election promise, and US has rightly undertaken airstrikes against Taliban forces steering the offensive.
US may not vacate strategic space for terrorists and their sponsors to give them opportunity to pose a threat to US mainland. The delay in withdrawal is also a necessity in light of China- Iran nexus and strategic situation in Gulf. The text of the article is placed below, which was written before commencement of Intra-Afghan talks and appears on pages 46 to 50.
WHAT PEACE PROCESS IN AFGHANISTAN MEANS FOR VARIOUS STAKE HOLDERS?
The Loya Jirga, (consisting of Afghan elders, community leaders and politicians) gathered in Kabul and gave a go ahead to release of the last 400 Taliban prisoners, as part of a peace agreement signed between the Taliban and the United States on February 29, 2020. It clears the last hurdle for the beginning of Intra Afghan talks for hopefully, a lasting peace. Apparently, the community has taken a chance, despite many apprehensions of Afghan Government and public, as the prisoners in question had committed serious crimes. A quick announcement of US withdrawal of another 4000 troops indicated US fulfilment of its obligations as per the deal. US may commend its Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the deal for allowing the US to withdraw its forces and end its longest-ever war, but the fact is that Taliban controls more territory in Afghanistan now, than at the time US entered the war, and the terror groups like al Qaeda, Islamic State (IS), Haqqani Network co-exist with Taliban, with an opportunity to bounce back, if not adequately controlled.
Was the deal a Compulsion for Afghanistan?
Afghan Government has never been comfortable with its exclusion from US talks with Taliban. Despite that, President Ghani in his address before signing ceremony indicated hopes of peace, based on mutual respect. Apparently, the compromise has been due to lack of any leverage, as Taliban refused to talk to them, and the election results have not been convincing enough to put him in driving seat. Going along with the deal, calling for Ulema and intra-Afghan dialogue for durable peace was the only workable option for him. The UN Security Council backing the US-Taliban Peace Deal and the promises of US help in facilitating Afghan- Taliban talks would have comforted him. It is a fact that any foreign prescription for peace will not work in Afghanistan and intra-Afghan dialogue is the only way forward for sustainable peace. It is also a fact that Afghan National Security Forces still need more capacity building and will be under intense pressure, after significant withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.
Compulsions of US and Allies to Pull Back from Afghanistan
US-led invasion ousted the Taliban post September 11, 2001 attacks. After losing 2,400 US soldiers, tens of thousands of Afghan troops, Taliban fighters and Afghan civilians and spending more than $1 trillion, it was appearing to be unsustainable with peace appearing to be only a mirage. The US planners in 2001 would have never dreamt of such an end state, where they will be signing a deal with the same Taliban, promising nothing substantial, in exchange of phased ouster of all foreign forces. Taliban‟s assurance of not to allow use of the Afghan soil for terrorism seems too good to be true. The apprehensions about Taliban adherence to deal was quite evident in Mike Pompeo‟s speech reminding them to keep their promises of not siding with al-Qaeda and to defeat IS , and US Defense Chief indicating that it will not hesitate to nullify the deal, if Taliban failed to hold its promises as per the deal.
Besides election promise of President Trump to end the war, a fatigue after 19 years of struggle for peace of another country was not motivating reason to continue further. Militarily speaking US was not expecting a military victory of the order of Taliban laying down its arms, as it could be cost prohibitive in terms of casualties. Complete withdrawal of US forces will also amount to ceding the crucial strategic space to its competitors; hence US has made adequate promise to help Afghan Government in combating al-Qaeda/IS/Haqqani network to ensure that it does not become strong enough to strike its mainland again. It indirectly means that US is looking at some support to Afghan Forces in some form, may be with some air power and some troops, albeit in reduced strength to continue. One more compulsion of US for such compromising gesture could be to reduce some engagements of troops, as some more flash points are emerging in South China Sea and Gulf, in vibrant international scenario.
What did Taliban Achieve?
Under the circumstances Taliban got the better of the deal by agreeing to talk to Afghan Government and promising to reducing violence, in exchange of prisoners and phased withdrawal of US and foreign forces. Taliban would be happy about getting back 5000 of its cadres in Afghan Government custody in exchange of 1000 prisoners. Their promise of renouncing support to al-Qaeda and fighting ISIS is unrealistic, because ISKP, AQIS and Haqqani network are already active, with no visible disturbance from Taliban. The recent attack by ISKP on Afghan prison, housing Taliban prisoners amongst many others, earlier attack on Sikh Gurdwara resulting in heavy casualties, and the new Pakistani leader from Haqqani network joining ISKP, indicates close linkage of all the terrorist groups including Pakistan based terror groups. Taliban and Pakistan may promise not to harbors these terror organizations but expecting that they will vanish from the region is wishful, unrealistic thinking in light of past credentials of both, having hosted and supported them for so long. Taliban will not sit quite unless it gains power. Even if their leaders put up a facade of giving reasonable governance if brought in power structure, its cadres will not settle down without sharia rule.
Other Stake Holders
Pakistan has a reason to smile for some of its role in talks and Taliban being in driving seat, who were hosted by them in crisis. Taliban, however, are quite patriotic to Afghan soil and did not make any concessions to Pakistan on Durand Line, even when they were in power. The Pakistan Afghanistan border clash earlier this month along Durand line, which is apparently being unilaterally fenced in light of weak Afghan Government could be a quick gain for Pakistan. While a peaceful terror free Afghanistan is everyone’s desirability in the region including Russia, China and India, provided it becomes a reality. Chinese are keen to extend its BRI to Afghanistan to get an alternate axis to warm water in Gulf, should CPEC face problems, besides exploiting mineral wealth of Afghanistan. The reconciliation of all factions of Afghanistan with each other, looks to be as difficult as change of behavior of Taliban, notwithstanding the rosy promises. We have to wait and watch the latest strategic re-alignments taking place in the world and the countries whose National Interests are affected by Afghanistan Geo-political dynamics.
New Concerns for India
India, having made significant investments in Afghanistan, will always hope for an Afghan elected, Afghan led, Afghan owned peace and reconciliation process and a popular democratic government in Afghanistan. From Indian point of view, it may not a happy situation in light of its heavy investments, dim prospects of International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) The growing strength and maneuvering space of ISKP and AQIS, who have interest in Indian subcontinent is a cause of concern for India, although Taliban has shown willingness to work with India. The other major concern is China Iran strategic partnership fructifying $400 billion deal, which may be an impediment for Indian entry routes into Afghanistan through Chahbahar and further connectivity to INSTC, although Iran has not given any signals of disruption of these projects.
India needs to be in touch with all stake holders including Taliban. India needs to exercise some smart diplomacy to convince US that Indian engagement with Iran is as much essential to prevent loss of crucial strategic space of Afghanistan to China, as much as token presence of US troops there. It is certain that some US troops will withdraw, but it remains to be seen whether this Peace Deal will work, or US pull back will leave stronger Taliban, growing IS, emerging AQIS and suffering population of Afghanistan.
Asthana Shashi (2020), View: Is US-Taliban peace deal a compromise? EconomicTimes, March 01,2020.
Siddiqui Naveed (2020), US and Afghan Taliban sign historic troop withdrawal deal in Doha, The Dawn, March 06,2020. URL
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maj Gen S B Asthana, SM, VSM, is a Veteran Infantry General with 40 years of varied experience in national, international fields and UN. He has worked as Director General of Infantry of Indian Army and is currently Chief Instructor of all Courses for military officers in United Service Institute of India. He is also on the Governing Council of Confederation of Educational Excellence (CEE), Security Council of IOED, International Police Commission,
(IPC, India), United Nations Collaboration for Economic and Social Development in Africa (UNCESDA). He is on Advisory Board of Swedish Armed Forces International Center – SWEDINT, Member Norway based UN organization, Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network (EPON), Member of various Think Tanks like Future Directions International (Australia), Institute of Defense and Strategic Analysis. Life member USI of India and Centre for Land Warfare Studies. He is a globally acclaimed strategic & military writer/analyst on international affairs and has authored over 200 publications/articles and over 180 blogs, on international & National issues.
(The views expressed are personal views of the author, who retains the copy right). The author can be reached at Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, and personnel sitehttps://asthanawrites.org/email email@example.comLinkedIn Profilewww.linkedin.com/in/shashi-asthana-4b3801a6 YouTubelinkhttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UCl50YRTBrOCVIxDtHfhvQDQ?view_as=subscriber