US-Taliban peace deal: What does it mean for Afghanistan and other stakeholders

Delhi Mar 02, 2020, 03.47 PM(IST) Written By: Major General S B Asthana

Afghanistan rejoice as US-Taliban sign peace deal Photograph:( Reuters )

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The prospects of peace in Afghanistan is good for all regional players, including Russia, China and India, provided it becomes a reality.

A long-awaited historic US-Taliban peace deal was signed by US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar on February 29, 2020. All stakeholders have expressed hope of peace returning to Afghanistan, but the apprehensions on the longevity of the deal, as well as, peace prospects could not be hidden in the utterances by various dignitaries. 

While a peaceful terror-free Afghanistan is everyone’s desirability in the region, but the existing environment in Afghanistan leaves a few questions in the mind of all strategists to say; Is it a deal or compromise? 

Compulsions for the US and Allies 

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, it was appearing to be unsustainable with peace appearing to be only a mirage. I am sure that in 2001, the US planners never dreamt of such an end state, where they will be signing a deal with the same Taliban, promising nothing more than a reduction in violence/no violence in concrete terms, in exchange of phased ouster of all foreign forces. Taliban’s assurance of not allowing the use of Afghan soil for terrorism seems to be too good to be true. The apprehensions about Taliban adherence to deal was quite evident in US Secretary Mike Pompeo’s speech reminding them to keep their promises of not siding with Al-Qaeda and to defeat Islamic State. US Defence Chief too indicated that it will not hesitate to nullify the deal if the Taliban failed to hold its promises as per the deal. 

The fact that US President Donald Trump had campaigned for ending the US-Afghan war, made it an important foreign policy objective for the US. The US was not expecting a military victory wherein the Taliban would lay down its arms. The promise of the US and its allies for an initial reduction of troops to 8,600 within 135 days and withdrawal of all their forces from Afghanistan within 14 months appears to be a reasonable compromise, given the fact that culminating point of US war was reached long back and their further stay was not making sense, in overall cost-benefit analysis. Complete withdrawal of US forces will also amount to ceding the crucial strategic space to its competitors, but it appears that the US has thought through it; hence made a promise to help the Afghan government in combating Al-Qaeda to ensure that it does not become strong enough to strike mainland of US again. One more compulsion on the US for such compromising gesture could well be the likelihood of Iran slipping into the hands of hardliners.

What did the Taliban Achieve? 

Under the circumstances, the Taliban got the better of the deal by temporarily halting its terror activities in exchange of US promise of phased withdrawal of all foreign forces. The fact that the Taliban representative made it a point to remind everyone of their Islamic values during the joint statement, clearly indicates the deep-rooted love for Sharia law of its cadres, who want to see their leaders remembering it, despite promising to be reasonable to all segments of the society. Taliban would also be happy about getting back 5000 of its cadres in Afghan government custody if all goes as planned. Their promise of renouncing support to Al-Qaeda and fighting ISIS is unrealistic.

Afghanistan Government 

The Afghan government has never been comfortable with its exclusion from talks with the Taliban. Despite that President Ghani, in his address before the signing ceremony, indicated hope of peace based on mutual respect. Apparently, the compromise has been due to lack of any leverage, as the Taliban refuses to talk to them and the election results have not been convincing enough to put him in driving seat. Going along with the deal, calling for intra-Afghan dialogue for durable peace was the only workable option for him. 

He chose to look for the US help for lifting UN sanctions on Afghanistan. The promises of US help in facilitating Afghan-Taliban talks would have comforted him, although the Taliban did not make any concrete promise for that. It is a fact that any foreign prescription for peace will not work in Afghanistan and intra-Afghan dialogue is the only way forward for sustainable peace. 
 
Other Stake Holders 

Welcoming the peace agreement, Pakistan said it will continue to support a peaceful, stable, united, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan. It, however, needs to be noted that Taliban and Pakistan have been supporting Al-Qaeda, Haqqani network and other affiliates for so many years, and it may be unrealistic to expect that both will not allow them not to use their territory any further. Apparently, it is for this apprehension Mike Pompeo found it necessary to mention that he hopes that Pakistan will continue to do its part, after the signing of the deal.   

The prospects of peace in Afghanistan is good for all regional players, including Russia, China and India, provided it becomes a reality. India, having made significant investments there, will always hope for an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process and a popular democratic government in Afghanistan. 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL) 

Major General S B Asthana

Major General S B Asthana had been an Infantry General with 40 years of defence experience at national and international level.