The Sum & Substance of the Afghan Deal

Published in The Hindu on 5th March, 2020

The long-awaited deal between the US and Taliban was finally signed in Doha last Saturday by US Special Envoy Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and former Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader. On the same day, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper visited Kabul to conclude the Joint Declaration for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the two governments. Gaps and inconsistencies between the two only add to the confusion. But two facts are clear – the US is on its way out and second, this does not ensure peace for the Afghan people. As former US Defence Secretary Gen Mattis put it, “The US doesn’t lose wars, it loses interest”. But since a major power cannot be seen to be losing a war, certainly not in an election year, a re-labelling of the withdrawal becomes necessary.

Shades of Vietnam
Nearly a half century ago, President Richard Nixon had faced a similar dilemma. With more than half a million US soldiers deployed in Vietnam, it was clear that a military solution was out of question. Seeking an exit, his NSA Dr Henry Kissinger, during his secret visit to Beijing in July 1971, assured Premier Zhou Enlai that US was prepared to withdraw completely from Vietnam in return for release of US POWs and a ceasefire lasting “a decent interval”. Kissinger and Nixon knew that the deal would leave their ally, the South Vietnamese government led by President Thieu, vulnerable. In the declassified 1972 White House tapes, Nixon and Kissinger acknowledge that “South Vietnam is not going to survive and the idea is to find a formula that can hold things together for a year or two”. The ploy worked.

President Nixon was re-elected with a record margin in November 1972 on the platform that peace was at hand. In January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed and by end March, US had completed its withdrawal ending direct military involvement. US POWs were released but by end-1973, the ceasefire was in tatters. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese forces on 30 April 1975. Approximately 20000 US soldiers died during 1972-73 (Nixon cemented the understanding during his visit to China in February 1972) and 80000 South Vietnamese soldiers died after the collapse of the ceasefire, following the decent interval. To win his re-election, Nixon had promised an honourable peace and delivered a delayed defeat but by then, the world had moved on. Dr Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. The secret assurances of 1971-72 only surfaced after four decades.

Khalilzad is no stranger to Washington politics having served in Republican administrations since the Reagan era. He understood his job perfectly when Secretary Pompeo appointed him the Special Envoy for Afghan Reconciliation in September 2018. An Afghan by birth (he came to US in his teens) and having served as US ambassador in Afghanistan, he knew full well that he was not negotiating an Afghan peace deal, he was negotiating a ‘managed’ US exit. The time line too was clear. President Trump had repeatedly declared that “great nations do not fight endless wars” and his re-election was due in the fall of 2020.

The road to Doha
President Trump’s 2017 policy aimed at 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. Within a year, it was clear that the policy was not working because no insurgency can be defeated as long as it enjoys safe havens and secure sanctuaries. Pakistan’s help was necessary to get the Taliban to the negotiating table.

A three-way negotiation ensued. First was the Doha track with the Taliban, a second was with Islamabad/Rawalpindi and the third was with Kabul to ensure that the Afghan government would accept the outcome. The dice was loaded because Taliban and Pakistan negotiated as a team. Within six months, they had whittled down Ambassador Khalilzad’s four objectives – a ceasefire, an intra-Afghan peace dialogue, cutting ties with terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda, and finally, US troop withdrawal – to just the last one, with some palliatives regarding the third.

The deal was ready to be signed last September when Trump abruptly called it off stalling the process. NSA John Bolton’s dismissal (he was opposed) and the release of three high level Taliban militants including Anas Haqqani (Sirajuddin Haqqani’s brother) in November helped smoothen issues.

The key features of the Doha deal are:

a. US troops to be reduced from current 14000 to 8600 by 15 June (in 135 days).

b. Withdrawal of all remaining US and foreign forces by 29 April 2021 (in 14 months).

c. Removal of Taliban from UN Security Council sanctions list by 29 May.

d. Upto 5000 Taliban prisoners and 1000 Afghan security forces prisoners to be released from Afghan and Taliban custody respectively by 10 March.

e. US sanctions against Taliban leaders to be lifted by 27 August.

f. Intra-Afghan talks to begin on 10 March.

Whither Afghanistan
Nothing reflects the fragility of the deal signed between US and Taliban in Doha better than the title – Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the US as a state and is known as the Taliban and the USA! This is repeated more than a dozen times in the Agreement. Ironically, US has committed to getting UN Security Council endorsement for the deal with an entity that it doesn’t recognise!

The leader of the Haqqani network and No. 2 of Taliban, Sirajuddin Haqqani who recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, remains on the US wanted list with a reward of $10 million for information leading to his capture or death. This hardly squares with the notion that Taliban is now a US counter- terrorism partner against the IS.

The Kabul Declaration states that Afghan government will “participate in US facilitated discussion with Taliban on CBMs, to include determining the feasibility of releasing significant number of prisoners on both sides”. There is no reference to numbers to be released or a deadline of 10 March linking it to commencing intra-Afghan talks, as in the Doha deal. No wonder President
Ghani angrily declared a day later that release of prisoners will be part of the agenda for the intra-Afghan talks, provoking the Taliban to declare that the truce would no longer cover Afghan security forces, creating the first of many obstacles ahead.

There is no mention of what will happen to the Taliban fighters whose numbers have suddenly inflated from earlier range of 30000 to 50000 to 60000 to 150000! Are they to be disarmed and demobilised; prepared for civilian life or integrated with the Afghan security forces? Who is expected to provide stipends to those opting for peace? Trump maintains that it is ‘time that the
war on terror is fought by someone else’ so it won’t be the US. US has described itself as a “facilitator”, a responsibility that it will be glad to share with others.

The idea of a ceasefire, which is normally the starting point for any peace process, has been made an outcome of the intra-Afghan dialogue, together with a political roadmap for the future, but without any timeframe. There is no reference to preserving the gains of the last eighteen years and with the Taliban intent on reviving the Islamic Emirate, the shape of things is clear.

Remember the duck test – if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.

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