Finally, after months of back and forth we have a deal in Afghanistan. The US has managed to strike a deal with the Taliban which can potentially lead to the withdrawal of foreign troops from the war torn Afghanistan over the next 14 months. This much talked about pact was signed in Doha by the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar following a week-long partial truce as a confidence building measure between the two sides. The ceremony saw the presence of diplomats from Afghanistan, the US, India, Pakistan among others.
Under the agreement, the US would reduce its military footprint to 8,600 from 13,000 in the next three-four months, with the remaining US forces withdrawing in 14 months. The complete draw down of forces would be a function of the Taliban holding its side of the bargain by renouncing Al-Qaeda and others as well as ensuring that Afghan soil is not used to plot attacks on the US or its allies. The US has pledged to lift sanctions against the Taliban and help in lifting multilateral sanctions against the group as well. This pact also provides for a prisoner swap with the provision that around 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan security force prisoners would be exchanged when talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are to commence in Oslo on 10 March.
For the US President, this is an important agreement in an election year.
In a sign of the careful balancing act by the US, even as this deal was being signed in Doha, the US Defence Secretary Mark Esper was in Kabul with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani reiterating his support for the Afghan government and making it clear that though a “hopeful moment” this was “only the beginning” and that “achieving lasting peace in Afghanistan will require patience and compromise among all parties.”
For the US President, this is an important agreement in an election year. In his presidential campaign last time he had pledged to bring an end to America’s “endless wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now he can go back to his base arguing that he has managed to deliver on his promise. Not surprising, therefore, that he tried to put this deal in the best possible light, saying that the Taliban had been trying to reach a deal with the US for a long time. He underlined his optimism that “the Taliban wants to do something to show we're not all wasting time,” but underlined that “if bad things happen, we'll go back with a force like no-one's ever seen.”
The culmination of these talks is an important milestone in the 18 year-long Afghan war which has seen America spend more than $1 trillion on fighting and reconstruction and the death of around 2,400 US soldiers, along with tens of thousands of Afghan troops, civilians and insurgents. This deal was made possible by the realisation on both sides that an outright military victory is not really on horizon for either side. The toll for the US has been heavy and there is an undercurrent of resentment in the American body politic about this. Trump, in particular, has been insisting that other countries need to do more. This was reflected in his statement after the signing of the deal too when he underscored that the US troops have been killing terrorists in Afghanistan “by the thousands” and now it was “time for someone else to do that work and it will be the Taliban and it could be surrounding countries.” For the Taliban too, there has been a growing realisation that negotiations remain their fastest route to a political role in Afghanistan.
This deal was made possible by the realisation on both sides that an outright military victory is not really on horizon for either side.
The stage has now been set for the intra-Afghan talks now which are going to be more intractable and difficult. Fissures are out in the open already with the Afghan President Ghani contradicting the terms of the US-Taliban deal on prisoner swapping and suggesting that such a prisoner release “cannot be a prerequisite for talks”, but must be part of negotiations. He is trying to put his own authority on these talks and trying to garner further concessions by making it clear that a prisoner release was “not in the authority of the US” but “in the authority of the Afghan government.”
The challenges are only going to become more severe from now on. There are two different political visions in contestation in Afghanistan — Taliban’s Islamic Emirates and a democratic Afghan state that has emerged since from the ruins of 2001. They are difficult to reconcile and the memories of the Taliban rule still remain strong. Ordinary Afghans, especially women, who have come of age in the last two decades would worry about their freedoms, making it difficult for them to trust the intentions of the Taliban who have declared victory in this deal to their supporters.
India’s concerns regarding the Taliban are well-known and have not been diluted. Indian’s reaction the deal was also cautious when it underlined that its consistent policy has been to support all opportunities that can bring peace, security and stability in Afghanistan and ensure end of terrorism and that India will continue to extend all support to the Afghanistan as a contiguous neighbour, referring to India’s claims on the Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir belongs to India. US President’s recent visit to India has allowed New Delhi to share its concerns with Washington and there is now greater synergy between the two sides. But India will have to be extra nimble in its response as the situation on the ground will evolve rapidly in the coming days and month. While the Indian strategic community was content to advise the US from the sidelines over the last two decades to craft a credible policy vis-a-vis Afghanistan, time has now come to shape India’s own policy more proactively.
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