Afghanistan in 2020: A dilemma for All Stake Holders!!

Sharing an analysis of mine on the subject published in the print Sunday edition of The Sunday Guardian. The readable text of print edition is reproduced below.

The URL is att below the text.

Afghanistan in 2020: A dilemma for All Stake Holders!!

Taliban’s offensive against the capital of Helmand Province amidst Intra – Afghan talks with their negotiators sitting at the table in Qatar, has shaken the possibilities of immediate withdrawal of US forces, which got embroiled in air attack on Taliban to support Afghan 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 to settle the 19-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, the peace process seems taking an ugly turn. The military analysis of US Generals doesn’t match with President Trump’s election promise, and US forces have professionally undertaken airstrikes against Taliban forces launching offensive on Afghan Forces.

US Dilemma regarding Withdrawal of Troops

US-led invasion ousted the Taliban, post September 11, 2001 attacks. After losing 2,400 US soldiers, tens of thousands of Afghan troops, Afghan civilians and spending more than $1 trillion, it was appearing to be unsustainable. Taliban’s assurance of not to allow use of the Afghan soil for terrorism seems too good to be true. General Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of US, in an interview has said that the agreement reached with Afghan and Taliban officials to leave Afghanistan was “conditions based,” adding that the US would “responsibly” end the war.

US will not like to cede crucial strategic space to its competitors, terrorists and their sponsors. It intends to help Afghan Government in combating al-Qaeda/IS/Haqqani network to ensure that they do not become strong enough to strike its mainland again. US is therefore looking at leaving some troops albeit in reduced strength (2500 by May 2021) with some air power to support to Afghan Forces, in near term. US could also be keen to reduce some engagements of troops, as some more flash points are emerging in South China Sea and Gulf, in vibrant international scenario. The delay in withdrawal could also be a necessity, in light of emerging China- Iran nexus.

Dilemma for Afghan Government 

Afghan Government has never been comfortable with US talks with Taliban, but has gone through the motion of peace deal, perhaps due to lack of any worthwhile leverages. The UN Security Council backing the US-Taliban Peace Deal and the promises of US help in facilitating Afghan- Taliban talks could have comforted them. It is a fact that any foreign prescription for peace will not work in Afghanistan and Afghan National Security Forces need more capacity building to face Taliban offensive.

Taliban demands replacement of the Afghan Constitution of 2004, which promises a presidential system based on elections, by an Islamic constitution. The strength of the Afghan Constitution is that it guarantees the rights of religious minorities and women, and bestows freedom of expression upon the people and media. Taliban is averse to electoral democracy, freedom of expression and women’s rights; hence deadlock continues.

Is Taliban in Driving Seat?

Taliban got the better of the deal by commencing the Intra-Afghan dialogue on power sharing with Afghan Government on 12 September, and yet continuing with violence, despite having got most of their prisoners back. Their promise of renouncing support to al-Qaeda and fighting ISIS seems unrealistic, because ISKP, AQIS and Haqqani network continue with frequent attacks on Afghan security forces, civilians including minorities, with no visible reluctance from Taliban.

The Taliban are reluctant to accept the democratic ideals offered through constitutional amendments because they feel they cannot, through the democratic process, find parliamentary positions. They feel that the electoral process and the constitution is a western system offering an insufficient role to religious authorities, in disharmony with their version of Islam. Even if their leaders put up a facade of giving reasonable governance, if brought in power structure, bulk of their cadres are conservative, hailing from the rural south of Afghanistan, will pressurise their leaders. Taliban thus claims to construct an inclusive and comprehensive Islamic system of governance that encompasses all spheres of life.

Other Stake Holders

Pakistan, despite hosting Taliban in crisis, has not forgotten that they did not make any concessions to them on Durand Line, even when they were in power. 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. Russians although interested in International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC), are not keen to get into Afghanistan again. The reconciliation of all internal factions of Afghanistan amongst each other, looks to be as difficult, as change of behaviour of Taliban. All stake holders affected by Afghanistan geo-political dynamics will have to wait and watch the fragile internal situation and shifting strategic re-alignments.

Dilemma for India

India, having made significant investments in Afghanistan, will always hope for an Afghan elected, 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 and dim prospects of INSTC. The growing strength and manoeuvring space of ISKP and AQIS, who have interest in Indian subcontinent is a cause of concern for India, despite Taliban showing 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 in Afghanistan, including Taliban. It needs to exercise 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 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.

Major General S B Asthana

(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 site shashiasthana29@gmail.comLinkedIn  YouTubelink

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