When the United States and the Taliban agreed on a deal under which the US would withdraw its troops from that war-torn country it had not reckoned with the wider ramifications of the entire operations, or that it would bring peace to this unfortunate country. The Trump establishment had not a clue to the complex geopolitical environment within which they were operating. Nor were they aware of the tortuous history of the nation that had been attacked and overrun for centuries even if none of the intruders had been left unscathed.
According to the present agreement reached on March 10, the US would reduce its contingent from 12,000 personnel to 8,000, phased over four months and complete the withdrawal of US as well as NATO troops in the course of the next 14 months.
Even as the deal was clinched and before the ink had dried the political turmoil in Afghanistan was headed for a showdown between the Taliban and the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with the latter unwilling to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. While Ghani was being sworn in as president for a second term at a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on March 9, a parallel ceremony was held by his long-standing rival Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah who had alleged that the elections, conducted in September, were rigged, as were the first elections held in 2014.
“Everyone is safe, no one is hurt, including President Ghani,” the presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said. “He had no bulletproof vest during his speech. He did not move an inch, he stood his ground.” Ghani announced that he planned to issue a decree soon authorize the release of at least 1,000 ‘old, aging’ Taliban prisoners, which was seen as a move to get the Taliban, which controls roughly 40% of the territory, to sit down with other Afghan groups and map out a political settlement.
Interestingly, Israel's Mossad reportedly identified the attack perpetrators as the ISIS and posted photos of a rocket launcher in a van which was subsequently destroyed by Afghan security forces.
The new Constitution Afghanistan adopted in 2014, as the present one, was brokered by the US to patch up the rival factions with the creation of a Chief Executive Officer who would function with the cooperation the President as well as manage the council of ministers and administer the day-to-day affairs. Meanwhile the Independent Election Commission delayed announcing the results due to ‘technical issues’ and allegations of fraudulent counting and unverified votes.
At the same time US Secretary of State Mike Pompei had stated that ‘prioritising an inclusive government and a unified Afghanistan is paramount for the future of the country and particularly for the cause of peace.’ He believed Abdullah enjoyed greater political power than Ghani with the majority of leaders and parties backing his claim for the presidency.
And sure enough as soon as the deal was signed, Taliban announced it was ending its temporary truce and would resume attacks. And the conflict in the Helmand region began with the US retaliating with air attacks on Taliban forces.
According to the agreement signed at Doha the Taliban would stop harbouring terrorists and hold peace talks with the government delegation in return for US troop withdrawal. ‘We all hope they follow through with their side of the deal but we believe we know their true intentions,’ said one official. Another negotiator said they were aware of the risks of a Vietnam-like truce that was brokered in 1973 and every possibility of the Taliban reneging on the deal and overrunning the country. Trump also commented he was aware of all this but ‘countries have to take care of themselves. You can only hold someone’s hand for so long.’ When asked if the Taliban could eventually seize power, he said that ‘it is not supposed to happen, but it possibly will.’
Even the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, as also of the US from Iraq and of the NATO forces from Libya had one common strand; a sense of uncertainty and foreboding. These agreements had been worked out in detail, like non-intervention in each other’s affairs, and return of refugees with explanatory statements like ‘ as guarantor of the settlement, and the US doesn’t intend to imply in any respect recognition of the present regime in Kabul as the lawful regime.’
The latest US deal with the Taliban that controls half of war-torn Afghanistan has been both a face-saving exit path for the US and its allies as much as an admission of defeat after 19 years of a futile war that has left over 2,500 US and 35,000 Afghans dead and a war bill of over 1 trillion dollars.
As far back as 18 years US-led forces had ousted the Taliban from power weeks after the September 2001 attacks in New York in the US by al-Qaeda, then based in Afghanistan. The Taliban regrouped and became an insurgent force that by 2018 was active in more than two-thirds of the country. So far more than 2,400 US troops have been killed during the two-decade conflict.
From all these encounters the Western powers seem to have learnt nothing, that no one has been able to subdue the hardy Afghans and that the land has rightly been called the ‘Graveyard of Empires’. The British, Russians and now the US and its NATO allies have all fought and were frustrated in their attempts. In this context that the efforts by the US to draw India into this quagmire in the name of the much-trumpeted Indo-Afghan strategic partnership, has to be taken and with a dose of skepticism.
After all India has already invested over 2 billion dollars in aid and development initiatives in this war-ravaged land, while the US and its allies had spent billions in chasing the Taliban, the Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, only to realise, two decades later, they were no nearer tackling the problem.
There are those who argue that Afghanistan, as a part of South Asia, now requires the support of SAARC countries to bounce back. But India apart, nobody has the money to spare for a country that apparently requires 5 billion dollars a year for at least a decade to become a functional state. It has no financial system worth the name, no laws that are followed and a police force that is ill-equipped and incapable of enforcing stability in a land where the writ of the warlords overrides the President and his government whose credibility is contestable. And the one American agency that could have done some good there, US Aid, was systematically depleted of resources by the hawks in America. And now with the America and Europe fearing recession, it is unlikely they’ll be willing funding any initiatives, especially after 2021 when the US and NATO plan to withdraw their front-line troops.
While India’s development work and socio-economic initiatives have earned it the appreciation of the Afghans, it has also earned New Delhi the annoyance of Pakistan that views Afghanistan as its area of influence, and makes common cause with the Pushtuns, who straddle both sides of the Durand line, against the erstwhile Northern Alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Those in New Delhi who hope to earn a place at the high table for all the good work done, after the US and NATO withdraw from this land of the ‘Great Game’, need to remember how India was sidelined at the earlier conferences at Pakistan’s insistence. Though temporarily in the docks now, Pakistan could bounce back, as it often has done in the past.
There are the other dangers lurking. Soon after the disastrous Russian intervention ended in 1991 and their troops pulled back, the Mujahedeen that Pakistan had trained and unleashed to fight were back and these were the ones who were diverted to Kashmir that finally led to the insurgency there and the exodus of one lakh Kashmiri Pandits.
The released Taliban has likewise the potential to cause more trouble in the presently restive Kashmir region and that would also be part of the game that Trump has unwittingly played into.
According to a recent BBC poll for the ‘greatest leader of all time’, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was chosen with Winston Churchill a poor third. He was also the only ruler who had conquered Afghanistan and this he did with the help of three Faqirs as negotiators and three Dogras as generals. These faqirs were so skilled in negotiating that they could win over even most hardened warriors, like Salahuddin the Great who could slice a silk scarf with his scimitar. The Dogra warriors were equally fierce that even much later in the region children would stop crying if the name Zorawar Singh was mentioned. And this is also the region where Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan had raised his Khudai Kidmatghar during the freedom struggle who were pledged to non-violence. Trump might stumble into finding a peace formula from these leaders for the country that has suffered so much.