The US-Taliban deal seems to have very little to do with peace in Afghanistan.
The US-led forces in Afghanistan conducted an airstrike against Taliban fighters in Helmand on 4 March. The Taliban mounted attacks on an Afghanistan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) checkpoint calling it part of their fight against a foreign occupying army. The irony of this situation is that just four days before this incident happened, the US and Taliban signed a peace agreement precisely to end the 18-year war and bring peace to the strife torn country. It is, therefore, anybody’s guess as to what the fate of such an agreement will be.
As per the terms of the deal the US is expected to withdraw its forces, civilian personnel and those of the allies as well within 14 months. The US will also reduce its troop levels to 8,600 in the first 135 days and the rest of the forces will leave “within the remaining nine and a half months”. The Afghan government will release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners as against 1,000 Afghan security personnel held by the Taliban. The democratically elected Afghan government will start negotiations with the Talban for a political settlement that might facilitate Taliban to share political power in Kabul. It will, to a greater extent, prove disastrous both to and the South Asian region.
Ironically, the agreement to bring peace to Afghanistan clearly says that this agreement is between the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America”. With total disregard to democracy the present Afghan government was not even made part of the agreement, nor invited to the talks. The White House however maintains that the present government was consulted. This is a big blow to the authority and credibility of the elected government in Kabul with whom India and many other donor countries are officially dealing with. There were, however, discussions among the Defence Secretary of the US, Secretary General of NATO and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, independent of the interactions happening in Doha. It looks completely ironic that two sets of discussions were happening simultaneously without understanding the larger imperatives for building consensus among all the stakeholders.
As if this was not enough, the political rivalry between two top leaders in Kabul also assumed serious proportions. The results of the September 2019 election in Afghanistan were announced in February 2020, declaring the sitting President Ashraf Ghani as the winner. His immediate rival and former President, Abdullah Abdullah protested and refused to accept the election result.
Out of about 37 million people in Afghanistan, only one fourth of them, some nine and a half million, voted in the elections, out of which Ashraf Ghani is believed to have managed to get fewer than a million votes in his favour. His rival Abdullah Abdullah declared the formation of a parallel government. It is going to be a difficult task for the government in Kabul, divided between two leaders and suffering from lack of authority to negotiate with a strong and united Taliban fully supported by their architects.
The Taliban was focused on three points during the negotiations; complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghan soil, dismissal of the present (elected) government in Kabul and handing over the reins of government to Taliban. Read between the lines, the agreement seems to precisely promise these three demands and much more. The demand for changing the name of the country to Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan seems to have been agreed to automatically by the agreement itself. Questions will be raised as to whether such an agreement signed with a non-existent entity is valid in international law. It is possible that the proposed recognition and endorsement of this deal by the United Nations Security council (UNSC) could also be challenged and will form a major part of the discourse in the foreseeable future.
The agreement further expects positive relationship between the US and the “post settlement Afghan Islamic government”. This is clearly indicative of future shocks. It is not difficult to guess the winner when a weak and divided government and a strong and united Taliban negotiate power arrangements.
It is here that New Delhi should start feeling uncomfortable. India has played a key role in supporting the post-conflict reconstruction process in Afghanistan. In the most likely event of Taliban storming to power in Kabul, India will have more than two significant concerns to worry about. The Taliban may not guarantee any protection to Indian assets and infrastructure projects and investments in Afghanistan. In addition to reconstruction of the Salma Dam (now referred to as Afghan-India Friendship Dam) and training the police personal, India has invested roughly $4 billion in infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.
Besides, considering the fact that it was Pakistan which facilitated the Doha deal, the camaraderie between Taliban and Tehreek-eTaliban or Pakistan Taliban will bloom to greater limits, directly posing serious security challenges to India in particular and the region in general. At a time when we are struggling to breathe life into our sagging economy and to position ourselves as the best and the most attractive investment destination, the last thing we would need is to become vulnerable to terror attacks on our commercial and strategic installations.
The US-Taliban deal seems to have very little to do with peace in Afghanistan. It is more about Donald Trump’s strategy to get elected for another term as the President of America. But in the bargain, has Trump compromised with his country’s strategic interests in the region and global security architecture? Unless and until the Taliban completely adhere to the commitments made in the peace agreement with the United States on counter terrorism guarantees, nothing tangible can be expected and Afghanistan will never usher in an era of peace and stability. The agreement also sounds very parochial. It only talks about the protection of the US and its allies’ interests and does not refer to the regional peace and stability.
Dr Arvind Kumar is a Professor of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal. Seshadri Chari is a well known political and strategic analyst.