The Return of the Taliban

Published in India Today issue dt 26 July, 2021

The American exit from Bagram, their Afghan airbase, on July 2 is the enduring symbol of the US withdrawal from its ‘longest war’. The very next day, 13 districts fell to the Taliban, and the momentum hasn’t slowed. Yet the process of US disengagement was set in motion nearly a decade ago. In February 2011, addressing the Asia Society, Hillary Clinton (then Secretary of State) reflected the policy shift when the preconditions for talks with the Taliban – renouncing violence and laying down arms, accepting the Afghan constitution and breaking ties with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, were converted into talk outcomes.

Pakistan’s decade long investment in providing safe haven and sanctuary to the Taliban was finally paying off. The next goal was ensuring Taliban’s legitimacy, something the regime had lacked in the 1990s because only three countries (Pakistan, UAE and Saudi Arabia) recognised it. Legitimisation process began with the establishment of the Doha office in 2013, followed by the Pakistan-initiated Quadrilateral Coordination Group talks (the US, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Taliban) and the Kabul, Heart of Asia and Moscow processes. All through, the US limited its role to a facilitator for the ‘Afghan led and owned’ peace process.

The breakthrough came when the Trump administration initiated direct talks with the Taliban, appointing ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. He began by setting out four objectives – a ceasefire, cutting links with Al Qaeda, IS and other terrorist groups, intra-Afghan peace talks and withdrawal of foreign forces, underlining that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. However, he had no Plan B, and the Taliban called Khalilzad’s bluff. Eventually, the US accepted the Taliban/ISI Plan A – a timebound unconditional US withdrawal in return for safe passage. Further, Taliban also enhanced their legitimacy at the expense of the Kabul government which was pressured by the US into releasing some 5,000 Taliban insurgents in its custody.

The 2020 Doha Agreement was neither Afghan-led or owned but received unanimous endorsement of the UN Security Council. Perhaps just as well that it was signed on February 29 for by the time its anniversary comes around in 2024, its ignominious end will be history.

President Joe Biden had long believed that US needed to extricate itself from the unending counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, limiting its role to counter-terrorism. On April 14, when he declared 9/11 as the deadline for completing the US withdrawal, the Taliban controlled 76 districts; today, the number stands closer to 220. Even after these Taliban gains, Biden has maintained that ‘US is not into nation-building’ and “it is the Afghan peoples’ right and responsibility to decide their future”.

Factions in the Taliban

Now that the US exit is a reality, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China may be recalling the old saying – be careful what you wish for – as they gear up to a new challenge of how to persuade the Taliban against overplaying their military hand and to accept power sharing?

Whether or not they succeed depends on the Taliban – how much they have changed and whether they are as cohesive and unified as they were under Mullah Omar in the 1990s. The disclosure in 2015 that Mullah Omar was dead (he had died in 2013) led to an internal power tussle. Mullah Akhtar Mansour (Alizai Pashtun) won out over Mullah Omar’s son Mullah Yaqub (Hotaki Pashtun). Mansour brought in a couple of Tajik and Uzbek faces to broadbase the Rehbari Shura while stepping-up attacks in Afghanistan to gain acceptance by the local commanders. However, within a year, he was killed in a US drone attack.

In 2016, Mullah Haibatullah (a Noorzai from Panjwai) took over, this time with two deputies, ISI favourite Sirajuddin Haqqani (a Zadran from Paktia and son of Jalaluddin Haqqani), managing the Peshawar shura and Mullah Yaqub who was backed by Qayyum Zakir, involved with the drug trade, and Ibrahim Sadar, the Helmand based commander carrying more weight in the southern provinces. Reports indicate that he is favourably inclined for talks.  

Opposition comes from Haqqani who has linkages with the other groups operating in the northern provinces. These include 500 strong Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Other elements include the IS-Khorasan and the Pakistan based groups (TTP, LeT, JeM, al-Badr, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Lashkar-e-Islam). How the loyalties and allegiances of these groups function on the ground is unclear.

In addition, Iran has a battle hardened Hazara Shia unit constituting the Syria-returned Fatemiyoun brigade, built up by Gen Ismail Qaani who has succeeded Qasim Soleimani as the Al Quds commander to defend Hazarajat, if necessary.

A third grouping that has gained prominence is the Doha based Taliban under Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader, co-founder of the Taliban and married to Mullah Omar’s sister. The Doha group has managed to get their families over and as the public face of the Taliban, are more inclined to a negotiated settlement.

All groups are happy as long as the military option keeps yielding results but who will call the shots when it comes to establishing governance structures and negotiating a power sharing arrangement? The latter also depends on whether the Kabul regime can present a unified front and whether Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China can prevail upon the Taliban’s fighting units. Estimates of Taliban strength run to around 60,000 whereas the Afghan security forces are over 300,000. However, whether the latter can keep their morale and maintain the integrity of their chain of command are questions that depend on the Kabul leadership which has spent last two years sniping at each other.

The last meeting of the extended-troika (US, China, Russia and Pakistan) in Moscow on March 18 recalled the UN Security Council resolution of last March that they “do not support the return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, though they have been displayed no initiative since. However, recent visits by Taliban delegations to Tehran and Moscow and the meetings in Dushanbe and Tashkent appear to be attempts at judging how receptive the Taliban are to resuming the intra-Afghan talks that have been in limbo for months and lowering the violence levels in Afghanistan. In a June 22 op-ed in the Washington Post, Pakistan PM Imran Khan wrote, “We oppose any military takeover of Afghanistan, which will lead only to decades of civil war, as the Taliban cannot win over whole of the country, and yet must be included in any government for it to succeed”.

Compared to other external actors, India’s leverage is limited. There are three reasons – geography, in not sharing a border; limited resources, both financial and military; and third, India was late in realising that since 2013, the mainstreaming of Taliban was letting Pakistan expand its security space in the region. Instead of sending out feelers to the Taliban, India chose to find comfort in the mantra of ‘Afghan-led Afghan-owned peace process’.  

According to senior Qatari official Mutlaq bin Majed al Qahtani, Indian officials have recently been in discreet contact with Taliban. However, as the old saying goes, one doesn’t learn swimming by jumping into a flooded river. Also, FOMO cannot drive strategy. India’s strength is that it is perceived as a benign power with an influence that cuts across ethnic groups. But it lacks coercive power of the other actors.

The Taliban may or may not have changed, Pakistan may or may not exert the same influence, but Afghanistan has certainly changed in the last two decades. Nearly three-fourths of Afghan population is below 30 and used to living in a conservative but open society; 60% of the population enjoy internet access.

Developing options demands patient and sustained engagement across the board; putting all eggs in one basket is not a good position to be in. Distance can provide America the luxury of non-engagement but our history and geography dictate otherwise for us, especially given our hostile relations with Pakistan. Just as water finds its own level, the natural political dynamics of the region will assert itself gradually provided India chooses its partners well and is responsive to the changing dynamics.

During the 1990s, Taliban fighters aggravated the situation in Kashmir. Will they do it again? It depends on the degree of ISI control. If India develops direct links, we could explore an assurance like the Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen provided China regarding the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement). How credible such an assurance might be is an open question. The answer is to replace episodic engagement because the neighbourhood merits it.

The underlying strategic logic of the Zaranj-Delaram highway, Chahbahar port and the connectivity provided by the INSTC (International North-South Transport Corridor) to Afghanistan and Central Asia still holds and together with our natural partners, can help us navigate the uncertainties that lie ahead.


Troubling Prospects In Afghanistan

Published in the Hindu on July 8, 2021

Last week, on Friday, USA handed over the Bagram airbase to the Afghan authorities, marking a symbolic end to its military presence, as US forces complete their withdrawal well ahead of the September 11 deadline, announced by American President Joe Biden on April 14. A familiar air of uncertainty surrounds Kabul as the Afghans ponder over the future of their land, ravaged by conflict for nearly 50 years. Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours are now faced with a new challenge – how to persuade the Taliban against overplaying their military hand?

A costly misadventure

Could anyone have predicted when the US commenced its military intervention in Afghanistan in October 2001 that it would get embroiled in an endless war for 20 years and to exit safely, it would have to negotiate with the Taliban, the same entity that it went in to punish?

It has been a costly lesson. The war effort has cost $ 980 billion, over 2400 US soldiers (plus 1144 allied troops) and 3800 private military contractors have lost their lives. It also spent $143 billion on reconstruction; about $90 billion went for the Afghan army, police and other security forces, $36 billion for governance and economic development activities (the rest of the international community contributed an equivalent amount) and the balance on counter-narcotics and humanitarian relief works.

Yet, the real price has been paid by the Afghans. The 20-year war has claimed the lives of nearly 50000 Afghan civilians and nearly 70000 Afghan security forces (a majority during last seven years); add to it another 60000 Afghan Taliban, and the scale of the Afghan human loss becomes evident.

There have been gains too. In 2001, there were 900000 boys in school. Today, eight million children attend school and one-third are girls. Literacy is up from 12% in 2002 to 35%; life expectancy from 40 to 63 years. Urbanisation is 26% and 70% of the population watch TV. From 320 miles of paved roads in 2002, today tarred roads cover 10000 miles. Infant mortality rates are down from 20% by over half. With a median age of 18.5 years, a majority of Afghans have grown up in a post-Taliban era. Today, they bear the brunt of 130 daily Taliban/IS-Khorasan (IS-K) attacks, the highest since the US ended combat operations in end-2014. Tomorrow, even these limited gains are at risk.

Taliban gains legitimacy

For US President George Bush, the objective was “to build a stable, strong, effectively governed Afghanistan that won’t degenerate into chaos”. As US shifted from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency, shades of Vietnam began to emerge. To Hamid Karzai’s credit, he saw the writing on the wall when he protested about the night-raids and warned the Americans “to either take the fight to the safe havens and sanctuaries across the Durand Line or make peace with the Taliban” but it only soured his relations with the US.

Eventually, US President Barack Obama diluted the objective to “preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for global terrorism”. He oversaw a successful operation to eliminate Osama bin Laden in 2011, implemented an unsuccessful military surge concluding with an end to combat operations in end-2014 and Taliban opened the Doha office in 2013.  

US President Donald Trump saw himself as a deal-maker and in 2018, initiated direct negotiations with the Taliban. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad (US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation) began by setting out four elements – a ceasefire, cutting ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, intra-Afghan peace talks, and, a withdrawal of all foreign military forces, declaring that “nothing is agreed till everything is agreed”. Within months, Taliban had whittled down the US demands till it got what it wanted – a withdrawal timeline not linked to the other factors. In addition, Taliban managed to get the US to push the Kabul government to releasing over 5000 Taliban cadres in custody. In short, the US ended up legitimising the Taliban at the expense of the government in Kabul that they had worked to create and support.

US President Joe Biden was no stranger to the Afghan dossier. He was convinced that US had to exit from its quagmire of “forever wars”. US may have decided that it had no military options but Taliban are still pushing ahead militarily.

From less than a fifth, today, over a third of Afghanistan’s over 400 districts are under Taliban control. The day after the exit from Bagram, 13 districts, in Badakshan, Takhar, Paktia and Kandahar fell to the Taliban, adding to the fifty that have fallen since May. In many cases, the locals manning the security posts and checkpoints have just surrendered. From villages and towns, there is already a move towards the cities. Intra-Afghan talks in Doha have been in limbo for months.

Questions about the future

Gen Austin Miller, the US commander in Afghanistan, indicated in a recent press conference, “Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised if it continues on this trajectory”. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation warned on June 30, “Today, the survival, security and unity of Afghanistan is in danger…”

Ironically, the most vocal critics of US overstaying in Afghanistan and hinting that US would never leave are the ones now blaming the US for a hasty and irresponsible withdrawal.

In coming months, as uncertainties mount, there will be increasing Taliban presence in the countryside as the Kabul government concentrates on ensuring security in urban areas and of the road networks. Taliban military strategy has been to target districts that enable them to surround provincial capitals. The clutch in the northeast including Badakshan, Takhar, Kunduz and Baghlan enable them to control the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border and the Wakhan corridor that links to China. In the east, they exert control in Ghazni, Zabul and Paktia while Haqqani network is active in Khost and Paktika, and IS-K in Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman. Further south, Taliban control large parts of Kandahar, Helmand and Farah (bordering Iran).

As the reality of the US withdrawal takes hold, how events unfold by end-2021 depends on three factors. First, have the Taliban changed their ideological colours? The US in recent years, and Pakistan for much longer, have been pushing this line but Taliban leadership have given no clues about it. Related to this is the question of Taliban unity. Distances have grown between the Quetta shura, the Doha negotiators and the fighters who want to guard their individual preserves. This works as long as everyone is pursuing the military option but when it comes to power sharing, who calls the shots? Or does it lead to no power sharing?

Second, can the Kabul regime present a unified front? If the leaders in Kabul and the government continue sniping at each other, it will adversely impact the integrity of the chain of command of the Afghan security forces. If opportunistic leaders are tempted to strike their own deals with the Taliban, it will only hasten the collapse and even Western funding will dry up.

The Pakistan factor

Finally, is Pakistan still seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan or has it realised that a Taliban-dominated Kabul will be a magnet for its own home-grown extremists as well as those from the neighbourhood? Can they persuade the Taliban that its legitimacy will be at risk unless it shares power? Pakistan’s influence will weaken once the Rehbari Shura decides to move back from Quetta to Afghanistan.

History tells us that in Afghanistan, there have only been winners and losers, seldom any lasting compromises.


The Long Shadow Of Political Turmoil In Nepal

Published in The Hindu on 27th May, 2021

Nepali politics entered another phase of uncertainty last week. The country’s President, Bidya Devi Bhandari, dissolved the House of Representatives (lower house) late night on Friday, at the suggestion of Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli, in a partisan move that disregarded the Constitution. Fresh elections were announced for between 12 and 18 November. Announcing elections was just to ensure that Oli continues in office, controlling the state machinery, even as Nepal battles a second and deadlier COVID-19 wave.

Oli’s opportunistic politics

Mr. Oli came to power after the 2017 elections, the first undertaken in the federal republic of Nepal, established under the 2015 Constitution. He led his party, the CPN(UML) to an impressive tally of 121 seats and together with Maoist Centre’s 53, enjoyed a near absolute majority in the 275-strong House. In May 2018, the two allies merged to cement their alliance and created the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).

Relations with India saw positive movement. Delhi was willing to overcome its reservations about Mr. Oli’s anti-Indian nationalist tirades. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal in May 2018, shortly after Mr. Oli’s visit.

However, Oli’s autocratic tendencies soon began to surface. The power sharing arrangement worked out with former Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ started fraying. The original idea that both would take turns at being Prime Minister and run the NCP as co-chairs became irksome for Mr. Oli. While he weaned away the Maoists cabinet members, senior disgruntled UML leaders led by former Prime Ministers, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal, gravitated towards Prachanda. Differences emerged in the open and a growing demand surfaced for honouring the ‘one person one post’ policy. Prachanda was willing to let Mr. Oli continue the full term as Prime Minister, provided he gave up his role as co-chair of the party. Mr. Oli decided otherwise.

Mr. Oli needed a distraction and by end-2019, found one in the Kalapani boundary issue. India issued new maps following the division of the State of Jammu and Kashmir Union Territories, Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. While 98% of the India-Nepal boundary was demarcated, two areas, Susta and Kalapani had remained pending. Though the new Indian map did not affect the India-Nepal boundary in any material way, it was an opportunity for Mr. Oli to don his nationalist mantle. He expanded the Kalapani area dispute from one covering approximately 60 square kilometres on Nepal’s northwest tip with Uttarakhand and China by raising the demand for restoring an additional 335 sq kms. The boundaries were fixed in 1816 by the British, and India inherited the areas over which the British had exercised territorial control in 1947.

Domestic politics takes over

Caught up in the first COVID-19 wave, India kept deferring bilateral talks, perhaps not realising the domestic political pressures on Mr. Oli. In May 2020 when Defence Minister Raj Nath Singh inaugurated the 75 km road through Kalapani that linked to the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage route, Mr. Oli upped the ante by whipping up nationalist sentiment, getting a new map of Nepal endorsed by the House and adopting a constitutional amendment to sanctify Nepal’s new territory. While this did not alter the situation on the ground, it cramped the prospects of any dialogue with India. It was a short reprieve and Mr. Oli’s political troubles soon returned to haunt him.

President Bhandari has been Mr. Oli’s close comrade since she entered active politics after the untimely demise of her husband Madan Bhandari, a charismatic UML leader, in a car accident in 1993. Mr. Oli was her political mentor and backed her elevation as President. She reciprocated by ignoring constitutional propriety and approving dubious ordinances including amending the Constitutional Council Act that enabled Mr. Oli to pack constitutional positions with his loyalists.

Amid rumours that Prachanda and Mr. Nepal were planning to move a no-confidence-motion against him after he had studiously ignored the meetings and decisions of party’s Secretariat and the Standing Committee, Mr. Oli got President Bhandari to approve dissolution of the House on December 20, paving the way for elections in April-May. The President’s decision was uniformly criticised as unconstitutional as the NCP enjoyed a near-absolute majority.

India decided to steer clear of the mess, calling it an ‘internal matter’ while the Chinese Ambassador continued to actively push for a rapprochement between the NCP factions. A five-judge constitutional bench of the Supreme Court unanimously called for a restoration of the House on February 23 strengthening the Prachanda-Nepal faction but on March 7, delivered a bombshell by overturning the UML-Maoist merger of May 2018, against which an appeal had been pending for two years.

Mr. Oli took over the reins of the old CPN(UML), reviving prior structures but now excluding Mr. Nepal and his supporters. Some were served suspension notices. The Nepal faction was reduced to a minority; under the law, a split in the party requires a 40% of both the parliamentary party and the central committee. Prachanda, heading the Maoist Centre with 49 members since four had joined hands with Mr. Oli, needed new allies to wage his battles.

Though Mr. Oli had lost majority in the House as Maoist Centre was no longer supporting him, he challenged the opposition to file a no-confidence-motion, certain that the Maoists, Nepali Congress (NC) and the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) would fail to reach an agreement on a new Prime Minister. He was proven right but overtaken by hubris, he took another gamble. He called for a trust vote on 10 May that he lost as 28 UML dissident members were absent and half the JSP voted against him while the other half abstained.

Presidential improprieties

The opposition again failed to present an alternative. In a questionable decision, Mr. Oli was sworn in by President Bhandari on 14 May as Prime Minister under Article 76(3) that permits the leader of the largest party to be sworn in and given thirty days to demonstrate majority. Within a week, Mr. Oli announced that he would not seek another vote of confidence. Without resigning, however, he advised the President to explore other options. Within a day, as rumours gained ground that NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba had managed to gather support from 149 members, including 49 Maoists, 26 UML dissidents and 12 from the JSP, Mr. Oli rushed to the President and gave her a list of 153 supporters that included all 121 UML and 32 JSP members, including UML dissidents and JSP members who voted against him on May 10. Without bothering to verify, President Bhandari dissolved the House and announced fresh elections, justifying that the rival claims exceeded the strength of the House.

Since 2008 when a new Constituent Assembly was elected to prepare a constitution for a federal republic, Nepal has seen three NC Prime Ministers (G. P. Koirala, Sushil Koirala and Deuba), two Maoist Prime Ministers (Prachanda twice and Baburam Bhattarai), three UML Prime MinisterMs (Nepal, Khanal and Oli sworn in thrice) and a Chief Justice as caretaker PM in 2013. None has damaged the constitution and the political fabric of Nepal as much as Mr. Oli, together with an obliging Ms. Bhandari. Opposition leaders have challenged the House dissolution in the Supreme Court but its outcome is uncertain. Meanwhile a raging COVID-19 puts a question mark on the election. In case an election is held, Mr. Oli will campaign on a nationalist anti-Indian platform.

It is clear that political uncertainty will continue. India has traditionally supported constitutionalism and multi-party democracy in Nepal. At this juncture, it needs to remain actively engaged with all the political actors, and equally importantly, avoid being perceived as partisan.


In Kabul, be ready for political uncertainty

Published in Hindustan Times on 26th March, 2021

Afghanistan’s foreign minister, Haneef Atmar, was in Delhi this week to brief Indian authorities on the recent spurt in diplomatic activity as the Joe Biden administration approaches the May deadline for United States (US) troops to exit Afghanistan. The problem is that the intra-Afghan peace talks have barely moved forward since the Doha agreement signed a year ago between U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban deputy leader Mullah Barader and violence levels have been steadily rising, especially since last October.

US policy shifts

Biden is the third president to deal with the challenge of bringing US troops back home. In 2009, Barack Obama described Afghanistan as “the necessary war that U.S. must win”. He approved a surge in troop presence, from 55,000 to over 100,000 soldiers, and also quadrupled the number of drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan but U.S. failed to blunt the Taliban insurgency. By May 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Obama realised that the real failure lay not in transforming Afghanistan but in changing Pakistan’s policy of continuing to provide sanctuaries to Taliban even while claiming credit as major U.S. partner in stabilising Afghanistan. Frustrated, he reduced the troop presence to 8500 by the time he left office in 2017.

Announcing his policy in August 2017, Donald Trump said that though his “original instinct was to pull out”, he had been persuaded by Pentagon to push for “an honourable and enduring outcome” and added 5000 troops while easing restrictions on use of airpower. However, after a year, he too changed track and Khalilzad was appointed to open negotiations with the Taliban that eventually led to the February 2020 deal. By the time Trump left, US troops were reduced to 2500.

The title of the 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 – showed that Taliban’s ideology had not changed and the deal was doomed to failure. Yet, such was the willingness to suspend disbelief that Khalilzad successfully persuaded everyone that it was “a peace deal” and not a “US withdrawal deal”, and the mouse he pulled out of the hat was a rabbit. A year later, that uncomfortable reality can’t be denied. While no American soldiers have died in combat in Afghanistan in last twelve months, the monthly death toll is 800 Afghan security forces and 250 Afghan civilians.

A new peace plan

The Biden administration is therefore seeking a “responsible withdrawal”. In an interview last week, Biden said that in view of the prevailing situation, it is difficult for the US to leave by May and a short extension may be needed. A new peace plan has been developed and Khalilzad retained to pull another rabbit out of a hat.

The new plan envisages replacing the present government by a transitional government that includes the Taliban, and establishing a 21-member commission (including 10 Taliban nominees) to draft a new constitution. Taliban and government should reach an agreement for a 90-day “significant reduction in violence” to create a conducive environment for diplomatic efforts. To energise the stalled Doha talks, Turkey has been invited to host a meeting between Taliban and the Afghan government and other representatives to work this out. A United Nations (UN) conference (on the lines of the Bonn Conference in 2001 that worked out the political road map for a post-Taliban Afghanistan) involving US, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and India, along with Taliban and other Afghan groups is proposed to discuss a unified approach.

Renewed diplomacy

UN Secretary General has announced the appointment of veteran French diplomat Jean Arnault as his Personal Representative to lead the UN efforts and prepare for the international conference. Arnault knows Afghanistan well, having been there from 2002-06, as Deputy and then head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

Last week, Moscow hosted a meeting of the expanded troika (U.S., China, Pakistan and Russia) together with Taliban and Afghan government and other leaders led by Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Council for National Reconciliation. While the intra-Afghan talks were contentious, the four ‘extended troika’ states issued a joint statement recognising the Afghan peoples desire for peace, calling for a reduction in violence on all sides, expediting negotiations for a political settlement, urging Taliban not to launch a Spring offensive and underlining that they do not support a return to the Islamic Emirate system.

President Ashraf Ghani is unwilling to step down to make way for a transitional government, suggesting early elections instead but the Taliban are not interested in the electoral route. Last two elections in Afghanistan were marred by controversy which were resolved only because US leaned heavily on Ghani and Abdullah to share power instead. A number of prominent Afghan leaders, unhappy with Ghani, have supported a transition as have Russia, Iran and Pakistan, leaving Ghani with no options.

The political reality is the Taliban had more loyal and consistent backers in Pakistan and the Inter-Services Intelligence, while the Kabul government steadily lost legitimacy because of its own incompetence and disunity, and because its backers in the West eventually lost patience and interest. By end-2021, the US may have ended its longest war, but for Afghanistan, the uncertainties are only increasing.