This article first appeared in The Wire
Dark, bizarre, surreal: we are short of adjectives to accurately capture the current political situation in Afghanistan. On May 8, even as they were in talks with the US, the Taliban attacked the Kabul office of a US aid NGO, killing nine. On May 5, the Taliban mounted attacks on armed forces outposts in northern Afghanistan, killing more than a dozen servicemen.
Earlier in March, the Taliban’s shadow police subjected women to public lashings evoking comparisons to their brutal medieval-era style rule between 1996 and 2001. This is to say nothing of the 75,000 plus Afghan civilians who have been killed in heinous acts of terrorism since 2001.
And despite all this, the US seems determined to strike a deal with the Taliban through negotiations which erode the authority of the Afghan national unity government, a government midwifed by them and one that couldn’t have survived this long without them. On May 9, the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted that slow but steady progress was made on the framework to end the Afghan war and the Doha round of talks were now getting into the ‘nitty-gritty’.
If we are to believe Khalilzad, the US remains hopeful of forming an interim government involving the Taliban on the basis of this quid pro quo: the US will scale down its presence in Afghanistan in return for security guarantees by the Taliban. Though the details are yet to be worked out, there appears to be an in-principle agreement on this broad arrangement between the US, the Taliban, and the Taliban’s minders – the ISI. If it works out, President Trump will appeal to the voters in the 2020 presidential elections that he has brought soldiers back from Afghanistan – from a war he now refers to as “ridiculous”.
Is peace even on the cards?
Frustrated by the violence, many analysts feel this arrangement is the only way to end decades of civil conflict. But this hope is bereft of underlying realities.
First and foremost, a US-led Pakistan-owned dialogue bypassing the legitimate government of Afghanistan has very little chance of success. For the talks to have any impact on the ground, an intra-Afghan dialogue is a prerequisite since the Taliban represents a small minority of Afghans.
But thus far, the Taliban has consistently held that it will talk only with the US and that too about a quicker withdrawal of troops. Only after that will it engage with the Afghan government, a condition which is irrelevant as the government will cease to exist in any meaningful manner once the Americans exit.
The Taliban is negotiating from a position of strength; they have even declined the call by the loya jirga – a grand assembly having significant normative legitimacy – for a ceasefire during Ramzan.
An interim government arrangement involving the Taliban will leave Afghanistan and the entire world worse off. To give any serious consideration to guarantees by a terrorist group that it would not support other terrorist groups indicates incompetence, short-sightedness, or both.
Just as a reminder of how hollow these promises are: the Taliban continues to sponsor and engage in terrorism and the deputy chief of the Taliban is from the Haqqani network, a group with ties to the al Qaeda and other terror groups. This Haqqani network has been referred to, by the Americans themselves, as “a veritable arm of the ISI”.
Amongst those that the US is negotiating with are Taliban figures accused of war crimes, some who have been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay and a few who represent those who have the blood, of not just Afghans, but also of Americans and Indians on their hands. Some of them are charged with war crimes for summary executions of surrendered Northern Alliance cadres and Hazara Shias in Bamiyan.
Moreover, the Taliban’s links with other terrorist groups continue to remain strong. The al Qaeda had sworn loyalty to the Taliban in the past. As recently as May 11, the al Qaeda’s As Sahab released a video advertising the group’s role in an ambush on an Afghan National Army (ANA) convoy in Paktika province.
Al Qaeda went further and used the footage to emphasise its alliance with the Taliban. What should not be forgotten is that the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba was born in Kunar and operated from Taliban-occupied territory till Operation Enduring Freedom.
The precursors to the Jaish-e-Mohammad – Harkat-Ul-Ansar or Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami – also trained its cadres in Afghanistan. Other Pak-based jihadi tanzeems, with the support of the ISI, have used Afghan soil for sanctuary, training and battle inoculation – something that could not happen without tacit approval from the Taliban.
Some reports suggest a mechanism will be instituted to monitor the Taliban’s assurances regarding terrorism and that the US will retain a small counter-terrorism force. Very little is known of this apart from hints that the monitoring mechanism will be international in nature.
The Pakistanis are said to be supportive as an international presence could help to ensure that international aid does not dry up. However, in the east, which is India’s concern, an international monitoring group will find it next to impossible to be effective as the border is porous, sanctuaries are easily available across the border and Pakistani agencies are unlikely to cooperate, if not be complicit.
Pakistan is adept at providing shelter to international terrorists, as was demonstrated in the case of Osama bin Laden. The monitoring mechanism in the east can only address Pakistani concerns which are currently the Kunar-based Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, now rebranded as ISIS in Afghanistan.
Finally, to give the benefit of the doubt, even if the Taliban leadership was to have a sudden change of heart, it’s not as if they will be able to resist other groups with whom it has fraternal ties or other bonds. When 100,000 US troops with aerial support could not succeed, it is unlikely that the Taliban and a small US counter-terrorist force would.
So what can India do?
A few days ago, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale reiterated to Zalmay Khalilzad that India would be uncomfortable if a drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan, as a consequence of the talks with the Taliban, was followed by an interim arrangement. Khalilzad had been told much the same thing earlier in January when he visited Delhi.
India’s position has been consistent that the peace process should be Afghan-driven and Afghan-owned. Consequently, there has been disquiet in India about the direction of these talks.
If keeping the Taliban out is no longer an option, India should push for a transitional government with a mandate to hold elections within a specific timeframe. The next best alternative would be to ensure that the head of the arrangement is an internationally acceptable figure with the necessary gravitas, clout and ability to run the government.
Independent-minded Afghan leaders should be encouraged to take up appropriate portfolios in the transitional government while ensuring that the most obnoxious elements of the Taliban are kept away from governance. India should also put its weight behind measures to ensure that the Afghan National Security Forces and other government structures are kept intact.
One of the pressure points would be the deliberations at the international level. There is noticeable ennui at the international level and the US has failed in presenting an alternative. While this makes a compact with the Taliban more acceptable, India needs to resist the easing of UN restrictions till such time there is proof that the Taliban has changed.
The worsening US-Iran relationship is another variable that weakens the Indian position. It is not too early to imagine that Trump’s focus will now shift to Iran. India has temporarily been exempted from CAATSA sanctions to build the Chabahar Port but this is unlikely to be maintained for long.
India needs to continue to stress the importance of this port not only as an alternate route to Afghanistan but also as a route to Central Asia. We need to get more of the world involved in this project – the Japanese, for example, need to be convinced that the project is worth funding; China needs to be assured that it is not intended to undermine CPEC and that Chabahar cannot be a competitor to the enormous capability of Gwadar but will at best be a feeder port. More importantly, India needs to convince the US of the importance of this port and the Iranians of our seriousness.
Finally, the onus is on the Taliban to prove that they have eschewed plans of a military conquest, are ready to participate in electoral politics, and have moved away from their medieval mindset. It is equally important to force Pakistan away from its preference for a weak regime in Kabul.
If the Taliban is allowed to continue on its path, Afghanistan will be led towards a disastrous civil war. This will damage Pakistan’s credibility even more, put strains on its already precarious financial position, and bring instability to the region. Hope is a good thing but also a misleading one. And hope definitely doesn’t make for good policy. In negotiating with the Taliban, the US is placing hope over reality. Afghans and the world will suffer the consequences of this mistake if they do not course correct.