Taliban-Afghanistan peace talks Photograph:( Reuters )
The peace deal does not guarantee success of Intra-Afghan dialogue; hence all stake holders have to wait and see its progress with hope, as well as apprehension.
After the recent release of over 80 hard core Taliban prisoners, after the Loya Jirga assembled in Kabul, gave a go ahead to release of the last of 400 Taliban prisoners, a temporary halt on release of remaining 320 prisoners is in effect, as few more countries (France and Australia) shared the apprehensions of Afghan Government and public, that the prisoners in question had conducted serious violent attacks on Afghans and foreigners. The release was part of a peace agreement signed between the Taliban and the United States on February 29, 2020, to clear the last hurdle for the beginning of Intra Afghan talks, to give peace a chance in Afghanistan. A quick announcement of US withdrawal of another 4000 troops, post Loya Jirga’s decision indicated US fulfilment of its obligations as per the deal. US may commend its Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the deal for allowing the US to withdraw its forces and end its longest-ever war, but the fact is that Taliban controls more territory in Afghanistan now, than at the time when US entered the war, and the terror groups like al Qaeda, Islamic State (IS), Haqqani Network co-exist with Taliban, with an opportunity to bounce back, if not adequately controlled. The peace deal does not guarantee success of Intra-Afghan dialogue; hence all stake holders have to wait and see its progress with hope, as well as apprehension.
Has US Created a Strategic Space for Others?
India, having made significant investments in Afghanistan, will always hope for an Afghan elected, Afghan led, Afghan owned peace and reconciliation process and a popular democratic government in Afghanistan, however Taliban continues to be a force to reckon with. US-led invasion ousted the Taliban post September 11, 2001 attacks. After losing 2,400 US soldiers, tens of thousands of Afghan troops, Taliban fighters and Afghan civilians and spending more than $1 trillion, a war fatigue of 19 years for peace of another country, is enough reason to pull out, besides election promise of President Trump to end the war. Taliban’s assurance of not to allow use of the Afghan soil for terrorism, however, seems too good to be true; hence US Defense Chief indicated that it will not hesitate to nullify the deal, if Taliban failed to hold its promises as per the deal.
Complete withdrawal of US forces will also amount to ceding the crucial strategic space to its competitors; hence US has made adequate promise to help Afghan Government in combating al-Qaeda/IS/Haqqani network to ensure that it does not become strong enough to strike its mainland again. Afghan Government had no choice, but to go along with the deal due to lack of any leverage, as Taliban refused to talk to them and the election results were not convincing enough to put them in driving seat; hence intra-Afghan dialogue through this route was the only workable option for them. Afghan National Security Forces still need much more capacity building to withstand inimical forces. It indirectly means that US is considering some support to Afghan Forces, may be little air support and some troops, albeit in reduced strength to continue. Another compulsion of US for such compromise could be to reduce some engagements of troops, as some more flash points are emerging for them in vibrant international scenario post COVID-19 Pandemic.
The New Peace Spoilers
Taliban and Pakistan’s promise to renounce support to al-Qaeda and fighting ISIS is unrealistic, because ISKP, AQIS and Haqqani network are already active, with no visible disturbance from Taliban and continued support from Pakistan. Taliban will continue to use violence as a leverage for better bargaining position even in Intra-Afghan talks. The recent attack by ISKP on Afghan prison, housing Taliban prisoners amongst many others, earlier attack on Sikh Gurdwara resulting in heavy casualties, and the new Pakistani leader from Haqqani network joining ISKP, indicates close linkage of all the terrorist groups including Pakistan based terror groups. A weak Afghan Government has resulted in conglomeration of variety of terror groups in Afghanistan, who have their own agenda; hence can be spoilers of peace any time. Taliban will not sit quite unless it gains power. Even if their leaders put up a facade of giving reasonable governance if brought in power structure, its cadres are unlikely to settle down without sharia rule.
The Pakistan Afghanistan border clash earlier this month along Durand line, which is apparently being unilaterally fenced, in light of weak Afghan Government could be a quick gain for Pakistan, but will remain a friction point in the long run, as it divides Pashtuns. Strong Taliban suits Pakistan, as it helped in its survival and shrinks Indian space in Afghanistan. It may however have its own limitations as Taliban did not make any concessions to Pakistan on Durand Line, even when they were in power. The reconciliation of all factions within Afghanistan is also as difficult, as change of behaviour of Taliban.
New Concerns for India
Chinese are keen to extend its BRI to Afghanistan to get an alternate axis to warm water in Gulf, should CPEC face problems, besides exploiting mineral wealth of Afghanistan. China has been actively involved with Taliban during peace process. Iran is economically weak and needs Chinese support. The China Iran strategic partnership fructifying $400 billion deal may be an impediment for Indian entry routes into Afghanistan through Chahbahar and further connectivity to International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC), although Iran has not given any signals of disruption of these projects. From Indian point of view, it may not a happy situation in light of its heavy investments. India is in touch with Russia, whose interests do converge with India in this region, being a stakeholder in INSTC for connectivity with CAR and Eurasia. INSTC through Afghanistan is the shortest route for CAR to warm water, hence they will prefer it over Sino-Pakistan offer of connectivity through CPEC. India has to be watchful of Iran - Pakistan- China axis developing in neighbourhood of Afghanistan, with tentacles in the form of terror groups inside it.
India has to be concerned of the growing strength and manoeuvring space of ISKP and AQIS, who have agenda to increase influence in Indian subcontinent, although Taliban has shown willingness to work with India and doesn't seem to harbour anti-India agenda, as of now. Since 2001, India has undertaken projects worth $3 billion in Afghanistan. Besides engaging with all stakeholders including Taliban, a watch on anti-India nexus of terror groups in Afghanistan is in Indian national interest. India needs to exercise some smart diplomacy to convince US that Indian engagement with Iran is as much essential to prevent loss of crucial strategic space of Afghanistan to China, as much as token presence of US troops there. US is committed to withdraw some troops, but it remains to be seen whether this Peace Deal will work, or US pull back will leave stronger Taliban, growing IS, emerging AQIS, suffering population of Afghanistan and new challenges for India.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)