Withdrawal Symptoms

Published in Economic Times on August 17, 2021

On August 15, as India celebrated its 75th Independence Day, Kabul fell to the Taliban. Later in the day, former President Ashraf Ghani, accompanied by his aides, left the country. Current reports indicate that he may be in Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters roam the streets of Kabul, awaiting the arrival of the Taliban leaders to take charge.

The return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was a foregone conclusion when on February 29 last year, US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad signed an agreement with the Taliban Deputy Leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader in Doha, following 18 months of negotiations. The document bore a strange title – “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the U.S. as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America”. This rather clunky phrase was repeated more than a dozen times in the text of the Agreement, a clear indication that the days of the Islamic Republic, established after the Taliban were ousted in 2001, were numbered.

In a collective suspension of disbelief, the U.S. withdrawal deal in return for safe passage was unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a “peace deal”. Nobody questioned the rather strange agreement that was signed between two entities that didn’t recognise each other.

Perhaps, it is just as well that the deal was signed on 29 February because by the time its anniversary comes around in 2024, the Doha Agreement would be consigned to the dustbin of history and the ignominy of the U.S. misadventure forgotten.

When Khalilzad began direct talks, he had outlined four issues – an end to violence or a ceasefire, intra-Afghan talks leading to a durable peace and reconciliation, Taliban cutting all links with international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, and a withdrawal of all U.S. and foreign forces, while also emphasising that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

Clearly the Taliban turned out to have a better appreciation of U.S. compulsions and eventually got what they had been seeking – an unconditional U.S. withdrawal. In fact, Taliban even got U.S. to persuade the Afghan government to release 5000 Taliban fighters held in custody. Intra-Afghan talks got off to a slow start and after reaching agreement of procedural issues, have remained stalled on the ‘agenda’ since last December.

No shock, only awe

President Joe Biden took charge in February and after an internal review, announced on 14th April that U.S. would complete the withdrawal by the anniversary of 9/11. As U.S. drawdown proceeded, Taliban executed a well-planned military strategy, beginning early May. Remote police and army posts were targeted and, in most cases, the 10-15 soldiers or policemen outnumbered by groups of 40-50 Taliban fighters, realising that reinforcements were not forthcoming, surrendered, handing over the arsenal to the Taliban.

In the third week of June, Taliban controlled 80 districts out of a total of 421 districts. A month later, Taliban had expanded their hold to cover more than half the districts. On August 6, they took over Zaranj, the first of the 34 provincial capitals and in less than 10 days, they were in Kabul.

Gaming the Great Game 3.0

At present, there are nearly 6000 American soldiers in Kabul, sent in by the Biden administration to ensure an orderly evacuation of U.S. citizens amid reports that the embassy is being closed down. Other western countries are downsizing or also closing down their missions by sending in military aircraft to evacuate their nationals. While there have not been reports of violence from Kabul, the current vacuum does create uncertainty and risk.

It is likely that Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China will retain their presence in Kabul and may even take a lead in recognising the new regime once the Taliban leaders reach Kabul. These countries have been actively engaging the Taliban and in recent weeks, have welcomed Taliban delegations in their capitals. It is possible that this helped them to obtain certain assurances about the security of their personnel in Kabul.

A perception has been generated that today’s Taliban have evolved into a less hard-line Taliban 2.0 though there is little evidence to support it. Reports from some of the areas where Taliban commanders have taken control are hardly reassuring and statements by its leaders remain vague and ambiguous.

India had remained wedded to the mantra of supporting “an Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled” peace process, in both letter and spirit. While Indian officials have participated in events where Taliban have been present, India has been content to let others take the lead. We have therefore been unable to plan options for ensuring security of both the Indian nationals working in Afghanistan as well the diplomats at our embassy in Kabul and this remains the primary responsibility at the moment.

Under the circumstances, the Indian government needs to urgently undertake an evacuation operation. When some kind of order is restored and the nature of the regime becomes clearer, the government can take a call on how to engage with the new dispensation.


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