Major General S B Asthana,SM,VSM
After several rounds of US Taliban Peace Talks in Doha, the reluctantly agreed upon ‘so-called intra-Afghan dialogue’ scheduled on April 19, 2019 was abruptly cancelled on April 18 amid seemingly insignificant disagreements about the size and composition of the Afghan delegation, which Taliban objected to.
US State Department conveyed their disappointment to President Ghani on April 21 and condemned the Taliban’s announcement of starting another offensive in the spring. It however was waiting to happen, as Taliban was in no mood to talk to present Afghan Government calling them a puppet Government of foreign powers. Afghanistan current regime is also not too happy with a sense of isolation in various rounds of US – Taliban Peace Talks without their participation, as Taliban continued terror attacks on them.
The Reality of Afghanistan
After 17 years of war Taliban seized more territory and controls at least 50% of the country. Taliban cannot be relied upon for any kind of peace settlement for the time being with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as their Chief negotiator, released from Pakistani jail last year, who has political ambitions, and has held various appointments in erstwhile Taliban Government prior to US invasion. They will eventually find reasons to rule the country, even if they promise to allow a peaceful democratic solution. The Government in power under President Ghani and CEO Abdullah do not give the confidence of being on the same page or being strong enough to face Taliban all by themselves. Taliban is unlikely to give up the ambition of ruling through Sharia laws, irrespective of the liberalised wordings they have been using during peace talks, because they have radicalised cadre, which needs to be satisfied by their leaders. The people may not be too happy as a large segment of population has got used to some liberties like women working at common place with men. Afghan military is not yet strong enough to take on Taliban in the entire country. It still needs lot of training, capability and military hardware. With continuous attacks by Taliban and splinter groups of Daesh getting into Afghanistan, peace is a distant dream.
Significance of US-Taliban Peace Talks
During US- Taliban Peace talks, there seemed to be some consensus regarding ‘Issues of Framework Agreement’. In principle US has agreed for phased withdrawal from Afghanistan after the final agreement. Timelines for withdrawal however have not been agreed as Taliban wants withdrawal in eighteen months and US is suggesting a period of five years linking it with implementation of agreement. Taliban have agreed to not to allow any terrorist group to operate from Afghan territory including getting rid of all foreign terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. This however is unrealistic and in my opinion, unlikely to happen. A comprehensive ceasefire to pave way for electoral process was commonly agreed to but is lacking implementation. The main issues still under discussion had been withdrawal of US and its allies’ troops from Afghanistan in a phased manner from Afghanistan along with implementation of other clauses of the final peace agreement.Taliban had declined talks with present Afghan Government, but later reluctantly agreed to Intra Afghanistan Talks with all stake holders including present Afghanistan Government to reach consensus among all, which have now been called off.
The US Taliban exclusive peace talks have isolated the present regime in power under President Ghani. It is clear that unless the present democratically elected Government is on board, no peaceful elections can take place, even after expiry of its term in September this year. The democratic peaceful elections are unlikely in near future unless intra Afghanistan talks take place. The ingress of pockets of Daesh in Afghanistan make situation even more complex. US want to withdraw as per their time table and President Trump wants to make such announcement before the next election. President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan will definitely alter the strategic balance in favor of Taliban, Pakistan, China and Russia. It however poses a question mark that is US willing to concede this important strategic space in Af-Pak region to its competitors so easily, after 17 years of war, knowing that China and Pakistan are waiting to grab it? Is domestic pressure on President Trump is so heavy due to election promises made by him. In an interview to CNN he had indicated that Russia, China, India and Pakistan should replace US troops in Afghanistan and resolve this problem as a regional issue. In my opinion treating it is a regional issue may not be realistic, because with radicalisation of Pakistan, growing strength of Taliban, and some existence of al Qaeda, Haqqani network and Daesh, I see a large caliphate in making, with levers of power with radicalized organisations. If the entire globe had to put in synergised effort to deal with Taliban and Daesh earlier, it is going to be even more difficult when the new grouping of radicalised elements emerges again.
The Position of Other Stake Holders
There are conflicting interests of each of the stake holders. Pakistan nurtured Taliban and al Qaeda, hence would be happy if Taliban is in driving seat, but it will not compromise on Durand line because it wants strategic depth. Taliban also will not compromise on border issue with Pakistan, as they did not do so earlier. US is fed up of fighting there, but if it withdraws from this strategic space, it will be lost forever to China, which has plans to develop communication links with China Pakistan Economic Corridor there, exploit all natural resources of Afghanistan including developing cross communication links up to Iran and preferably use their port as well. Russia had entered Afghanistan earlier to deny the US influence there during cold war period. US helped Mujahedeen to counter Russia. Later Russia found the occupation unsustainable and withdrew unilaterally. I do not think that they will do the same mistake again. Russia however has been considering establishment of second military base in southern flank of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan bordering Afghanistan to fulfill its strategic interest. Russians also hosted Peace Talks on Afghanistan with all stake holders and invited India. I learnt was that some observers did attend it, but not as a formal participation by the Indian Government.
Sino- Pak Interest
China has been actively engaging with Taliban in the recent past and Pakistan harbored them even when Multi-national Forces were fighting with them earlier. I therefore see no reason why Pakistan will not be amenable to Afghanistan under Taliban Islamic rule. If Taliban guarantees China’s that it will not support ETIM operating in Xinjiang, and if Chinese feel that they can manage Taliban, they may also be amenable to Taliban Islamic rule. If China is comfortable with Islamic Republic of Pakistan, I see no reason why they will not accept Islamic rule under Taliban, so long it meets Chinese national interest. China and Pakistan will definitely see a Taliban government as a major strategic gain against USA and India. Taliban will have to be managed by China, financially or otherwise for stability of China´s New Silk road and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, because even Chinese will not trust a jihadist group for stability of its economic assets. Pakistan will expect Taliban as a facilitator of new strategic depth against India, but it cannot take them for granted because the last Taliban Regime did not compromise with Pakistan on border issue. Pakistan will celebrate if Indian investments in Afghanistan go waste, but any government in Afghanistan is likely to welcome Indian assistance.Taliban if brought to power will be interested in development of Afghanistan and the New Silk road, but I have my doubts that China and Pakistan will believe Taliban’s guarantee that it won´t be a safe haven for terrorists and jihadist and won´t interfere in internal affairs of China in Xinjian or question the Durand line, because both these countries are well familiar with ideology of Taliban. In my opinion Taliban may accept these conditions on paper to come to power, but will subsequently do what it suits them most.
Implications for India India is the largest regional donor to Afghanistan and fifth largest donor globally with over $3 billion in assistance. It has helped the country in infrastructure and capacity building of the nation and invested over $10 billion cumulative amount since 2002 in doing so. Construction of Salma Dam, Parliament building, various connectivity and power projects and supply of some military hardware are examples of the assistance provided by India. India is the largest export destination of Afghanistan and their exports stood at $ 740 million to India in 2018. The new route through Chahbahar has been activated bypassing Pakistan, to which US had granted exception from sanctions imposed on Iran, post withdrawal from JCPOA, for humanitarian assistance and rebuilding Afghanistan. Any new dispensation in Afghanistan involving Taliban if not friendly to India may jeopardize India’s investments in Afghanistan, but it will be at a huge loss to its people. Indian investment in Afghanistan including Chabahar port, connectivity projects to Afghanistan and onward to CAR republics would require the support of Afghanistan Government; therefore a friendly regime is desirable. Increased influence of Pakistan in Afghanistan is detrimental to Indian and US interest. US withdrawal will embolden Taliban and other terrorist groups and may influence the ongoing militancy in Jammu and Kashmir also. Turkmenistan- Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) project passes through Afghanistan and Pakistan, hence its success or otherwise is dependent on Indo-Pakand and Indo Afghanistan relations amongst many other factors. All four countries are stake holders in this project; hence any obstruction in the project is going to be a collective loss for all. India´s has worked with all Afghan governments so far; hence I visualise that India will continue to deal with the Government of the day, as hither to fore, even if there is any change.
Taliban may not want to speak to Afghan establishment/their representatives but the talks with US only have no meaning if Afghan Government is not part of it, as the electoral process cannot begin otherwise. Peace talks should not mean that Afghanistan be handed over to Taliban unanimously by all stakeholders, despite their continued offensive and power of militancy, which will be construed as a victory against super power and global community through terror. The gesture of Taliban talking about bringing a women representative for talks is good optics, but does not make them moderates or believers in democratic institutions or equality to women.The US on their part is not going to give up its efforts to create conditions for its smooth pull out from Afghanistan.Their special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, is already on new regional trip to Qatar for a new round of negotiations with the Taliban, aiming to find a political solution to the Afghan war despite the disappointment of cancellation of ‘Intra-Afghan dialogue’.
The author, MAJ GEN S B ASTHANA,SM,VSM is a veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in international fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst; he is currently the Chief Instructor of USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India. Former Additional DG Infantry. Member Board/Governing Council CEE,IOED,IPC, other UN Organisations.