Another Afghan peace push and a role for India

Published in The Hindu on 19th September, 2020

Last week, on 12 September the much awaited intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation opened in Doha, nineteen years after the 9/11 attacks on US homeland that stunned the world and marked the beginning of the US war in Afghanistan against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, its local sponsors. The initiation of intra-Afghan talks was a key element in the US-Taliban peace deal signed in Doha on 29 February between US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader. Originally planned to begin on 10 March, the process had to overcome many hurdles along the way providing a small glimpse of the difficult road that lies ahead.

US-Taliban deal
The Trump administration soon realised that its 2017 policy of breaking the military stalemate by a small increase in US troops was not working and soon reverted to seeking a managed exit. As the former Defence Secretary General Mattis put it, “the US doesn’t lose wars, it loses interest”. Political optics demanded a re-labelling of the withdrawal.

Direct negotiations with the Taliban began two years ago with Ambassador Khalilzad’s appointment as Special Envoy. Actually, it became a three-way negotiation. The Doha track was with the Taliban, a second track was with Islamabad/Rawalpindi to cajole the Pakistan Army to lean on the Taliban to get them to the negotiating table and the third was with Kabul to ensure that the Afghan government would accept the Doha outcome.

Originally Ambassador Khalilzad had spelt out four objectives – an end to violence by declaring a ceasefire, an intra-Afghan dialogue for a lasting peace, Taliban cutting ties with terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda, and US troop withdrawal. Within months, the Taliban had whittled these down to just the last one with some palliatives regarding the third. Instead of an Afghan led,
Afghan owned and Afghan controlled reconciliation, it had become a US led and Taliban controlled process with nobody claiming ownership or responsibility.

Time lines were fixed for the US drawdown by mid-June (followed by complete withdrawal by April 2021) and for removal of Taliban from the UN Security Council sanctions list by end-May. The Taliban have released 1000 members of Afghan security forces and the Afghan authorities have freed over 5000 Taliban from their custody. This process took longer than originally foreseen but has now been completed. The two elements that remained open ended in the US- Taliban deal are the ceasefire declaration and the intra-Afghan talks.

The uncertainties ahead
By end-June, US had reduced its troop presence to 8600 as promised and in early September, CENTCOM commander Gen Kenneth McKenzie indicated that by November the numbers would be down to 4500. Despite two brief 3 day truces in May and August for Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha, the levels of violence showed no respite. Speaking the Doha at the opening session, Dr Abdullah
Abdullah, Chairman of the High Council regretted that more than 12000 Afghans had been killed and another 15000 injured since end-February. The number of attacks on government security forces and installations averaged over eighty a week.

A report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued in July covering the second quarter of 2020 assessed that “the Taliban has calibrated the use of violence to continue undermining the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces while keeping it at a level that encourages the US troops to leave”. The report expressed scepticism about whether the Taliban had cut ties with Al Qaeda and stated that “the Islamic State-Khorasan retains the ability to conduct mass casualty attacks”. A UN Sanctions Monitoring Team Report concerning IS and Al Qaeda also issued in July concluded that “Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent continues to operate
under the Taliban umbrella in Nimroz, Helmand and Kandahar provinces with 400-600 fighters in the country”.

Perhaps nothing reflects the challenges facing the intra-Afghan negotiations more starkly than the title of the US-Taliban Doha deal – “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 awkward phrase is repeated more than a dozen times in the Agreement. The leader of the Haqqani Network Sirajuddin Haqqani who is also the second in command of the Taliban happens to be on the US wanted list with a reward of $10 million for information leading to his capture or death. All this is difficult to reconcile with the notion that US considers the Taliban a partner in counter-terrorism operations against the IS and other terrorist groups.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post on 14 August, President Ashraf Ghani wrote that “the Afghan people want peace” and that is why the government “made the decision to take another risk for peace”. Calling on the Taliban to sit across from Afghan representatives to arrive at a political resolution, he added that “we acknowledge the Taliban as part of our reality” and urged that “the Taliban must, in turn, acknowledge the changed reality of today’s Afghanistan”.

The current reality is that 74 percent of Afghan population is below 30 and has lived, for most part, in a conservative but open society. However, the Taliban continue to maintain the Kabul administration as an imported Western structure for continued American occupation. Senior members of the Afghan government continue to be targeted including Vice President Amrullah Saleh who narrowly escaped an IED attack on his motorcade (9 September) even as 11 innocent Afghans lost their lives.

Evolving Indian position
Addressing the opening session of the Doha meeting, EAM Dr Jaishankar reiterated that the peace process must be “Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled” but Indian policy has evolved from its earlier hands-off approach to the Taliban. Speaking to Indian media a few months ago on separate occasions, both Ambassador Khalilzad and Russian Special Envoy Ambassador Zamir Kabulov bluntly pointed out that if India had concerns regarding anti-India activities of terrorist groups, it must engage directly with the Taliban. In other words, if India wanted to be invited to the party, it must be prepared to get up and dance.

The reality is major powers have limited interests. For the US, the peace talks provide President Trump an exit opportunity weeks before his re-election bid. EU has made it clear that its financial contribution will depend on the security environment and the human rights record. China can always lean on Pakistan to preserve its security and connectivity interests. For Russia, blocking the drug supply and keeping its southern periphery secure from extremist influences is key. That is why no major power is taking ownership for the reconciliation talks but merely content with being facilitators.

A report issued last month by the Heart of Asia Society, a Kabul based think tank observes that “the prospect for peace in Afghanistan depends on regional consensus to support the peace process as much as it depends on actual progress in the intra-Afghan talks”. India’s vision of a sovereign, united, stable, plural and democratic Afghanistan is one that is shared by a large constituency in Afghanistan, cutting across ethnic and provincial lines. A more active engagement will enable India to work with like minded forces in the region to ensure that the vacuum created by the US withdrawal does not lead to an unravelling of the gains registered during the last two decades.

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