A US-Taliban Deal or an Afghan Peace Deal

Published in Hindustan Times on 1st March, 2020

On Saturday, 29 th February, an agreement will be signed between the US and the Taliban in Doha. Widely welcomed as a ‘peace deal’, it will be claimed by US President Donald Trump as further proof of his uncanny deal-making prowess. But while the deal may well mark the end of the US war in Afghanistan whether it actually ends conflict in Afghanistan remains an open question.

Road to the deal
Negotiations began in September 2018 with the appointment of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to initiate direct talks with Taliban. It marked a reversal of Trump’s 2017 policy based on breaking the military stalemate in Afghanistan by authorising an additional 5000 soldiers, giving US forces a freer hand to go after the Taliban, putting Pakistan on notice and strengthening Afghan capabilities. Since it was soon clear that the policy was not working and the Taliban insurgency could not be defeated as long as it enjoyed safe havens and secure sanctuaries, US changed track and sought Pakistan’s help to get Taliban to the negotiating table.

While US maintained that Doha talks covered four issues – cessation of hostilities, cutting ties with terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda, an intra- Afghan peace dialogue, and finally, US troop withdrawal, Taliban made it clear that their priority was the last issue. They rejected the idea of a ceasefire, and any talks with the Afghan government describing it as a puppet regime, lacking
legitimacy. Taliban provided some assurances on the second issue but focused on a firm date for US troop withdrawal.

A deal was ready to be signed on 8th September, with a Taliban delegation scheduled to travel to Camp David, when there was a hiccup. A US soldier was killed in a car bomb attack; coupled with the negative optics of welcoming a Taliban delegation in Camp David during the week marking the 9/11 attacks anniversary led Trump to call off the deal.

Within a month, talks were revived. US demanded a ceasefire for a month as a sign of Taliban commitment but Taliban demurred. Taliban felt that too long a ceasefire would make it difficult for them to regroup their fighters once they returned to their villages. Eventually, US settled for ‘significant reduction in violence’ for a week. The week long period began in the early hours of 22nd February, setting the stage for the Doha signing.

Echoes of Vietnam
The deal provides a timetable for reducing US troops from 14000 to 8600, possibly by the end of 2020 and the kick-starting of intra-Afghan peace talks. It is unclear if there is a date for complete withdrawal of US troops or for concluding the intra-Afghan dialogue or for how long the truce will hold. What is clear is that the US war in Afghanistan will come to an end permitting Trump to deliver on his promise of bringing the soldiers home in his re-election year.

Around fifty years ago, US pursued a similar strategy in Vietnam. President Nixon had taken over in 1969 when US troop presence in Vietnam was over half a million. It was clear that a military solution was not possible. During his secret visit to Beijing in 1971 July, Nixon’s NSA Dr Kissinger told Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai that US would agree to a complete withdrawal of troops in return for Hanoi’s releasing US POWs and a ceasefire for “a decent interval, say 18 months or more, before a Communist takeover in Vietnam”. He assured Zhou that if the Saigon government was overthrown following “a decent interval”, US would not intervene. Neither the US public nor the South Vietnamese were privy to this exchange.

And this is exactly how it unfolded. Nixon visited China in February 1972, describing it a visit to bring about “a lasting peace in the world” and won his re-election handsomely in November 1972 promising that “peace was at hand”. In January 1973, the Paris Peace Accord was signed ending direct US military involvement and withdrawal, release of POWs, ceasefire and a reunification through peaceful means. Full scale fighting erupted before end-1973. South Vietnam lost another 80000 soldiers till 30th April 1975 when Saigon finally fell. US did not intervene as its war had been over two years earlier. Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. Nixon resigned in 1974, facing impeachment in the Watergate scandal.

Crafting a peace deal
Many things have changed but US still cannot be seen to be losing the war in a re-election year and so the US withdrawal needs repackaging as a peace process for Afghanistan. The problem is that nobody really knows what the Taliban want and reconciling an Emirate and Shariat based system with the existing Constitution is not easy. How would Taliban fighters be demobilised? How would an amnesty and reintegration package be worked out and who pays? Would an early US withdrawal encourage the Taliban to improve their bargaining position on the battlefield? Are the major powers only ‘facilitators’ or are they collectively prepared to act as ‘guarantors’?

Addressing these is necessary for a good deal but if the search is only for “a decent interval”, the Taliban who have waited two decades can also wait out “a decent interval”.

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