The United States bit the bullet of strategic humiliation and began talks with the Taliban last October. In doing so, it conferred legitimacy to the Pakistan-backed group. It also abandoned its long-stated position that the Taliban should negotiate with the Afghanistan government which it had refused to do. Six months and five rounds of intense negotiations later, it is clear there will be no easy or early end to America’s Afghan agony. Why?
While neither the U.S. nor the Taliban has disclosed negotiation details, there are indications that both have made progress on their key demands. The U.S. wants an assurance that the Taliban would not allow Afghanistan to become a base for global terrorist groups. On its part, the Taliban want a firm time-table of the withdrawal of NATO troops.
Unless President Trump just ‘ups and leaves’ which is unlikely these understandings by themselves though have little value unless, at least, the modalities for peace-making among the Afghan parties themselves and a ceasefire between the Taliban and the Afghan government can be achieved. These are essential, if procedural, steps for intra-Afghan negotiations for comprehensive peace and security. With the Taliban’s continuing intransigent attitude towards the Afghan government, there is no prospect for the beginning of a true intra-Afghan process.
Meanwhile, confusion prevails with the Kabul political cohesion, such as it existed, fraying almost completely, the military situation essentially stalemated and Taliban terrorist violence continuing unabated all over the country. A consideration of these aspects, among others, is necessary to appreciate the contours of the emerging Afghan situation.
The National Unity Government (NUG) led by Ashraf Ghani and with Dr Abdullah as Chief Executive was formed after the disputed 2014 Presidential election. It was brought about by the U.S. through a political pact between Ghani and Abdullah and was extra-constitutional to begin with. Few of the pact’s features were implemented and all through these five years it lacked internal unity, direction or vision which could have rallied the country’s different ethnic groups to cohesively take on the Taliban.
Consequently, Afghanistan drifted and the Taliban crept forward from 2014 to 2018. It increased its influence in the country and successfully weathered the death of Mullah Omar and later of Akhtar Mansour. It also staged spectacular terrorist attacks, including in Kabul, to establish its penetration of the Afghan system. Despite Ghani’s pleas, it refused to negotiate with the NUG which it proclaimed as a U.S. puppet.
As the overall Afghan stalemate continued, the Obama administration took no initiative in its last two years in office. President Donald Trump personally announced an Afghanistan and South Asia policy in August 2017. It is important to recall it for it impacted on Afghanistan because of what it promised and, more importantly, failed to deliver.
Trump said that the U.S. wanted an “honourable and enduring” outcome, ruled out a “hasty withdrawal” and said that the U.S. faced “immense” security threats in Afghanistan and the “wider region”. Trump asserted that the Taliban would be defeated, demanded that Pakistan close Taliban safe havens and end its duplicitous policy. Trump defined victory as “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and preventing mass terror attacks against America before they emerge”.
Pakistan and the Taliban really paid little heed to Trump’s threats. In order to show both that he meant business he needed to order ground operations against Taliban safe havens in Pakistani territory. He did not do so and the result is that a confident Pakistan and the Taliban have called his bluff and bluster and pushed America decisively on the back foot.
The U.S. expectation clearly was that the Taliban would begin talking to the NUG once its discussions with the group went ahead. That has not happened. Instead, the Taliban is acting as if it is now the principal pole in the Afghan polity and is asking members of the Afghan political class to interact with it in their individual capacities. Russia has implicitly encouraged this process as witnessed in the intra-Afghan Moscow February meeting. No Afghan government representative was present in any capacity, showing that the Kabul-centred political class had splintered and NUG could not hold it together.
Ghani watched with dismay as the NUG was completely sidelined in the peace-making process. However, as another round was planned in Doha last week, he hit back. He virtually ‘allowed’ 250 Afghans including government members to go in their individual capacity. This was a stratagem to make the entire process meaningless and the Taliban and its Qatari sponsors had no alternative but to call off the exercise.
To control the Kabul political process, Ghani has succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to rule that he can legitimately hold office till the Presidential election now scheduled in September. He has also called a Loya Jirga of around 3000 persons for the end of this month. The latter has been boycotted by Abdullah and the former does not count for much in the Afghan polity. They are being looked at ways in which Ghani is attempting to strengthen his candidacy in the next election. The fragmentation of the Kabul political class will only get worse in the election season.
It will be a big challenge to hold a credible Presidential election. Many will hope that it will unify the Kabul-centred political class so that the Taliban will have to negotiate with the government. That is far from certain. Only if it suffers military reverses will the Taliban be chastened and Pakistan will ensure that does not happen. The group’s high morale can be gauged by the name it has given to its military campaign this year—al Fatah (victory). Certainly, there is no prospect of the Taliban accepting a ceasefire. The U.S.-Taliban talks will go ahead but are unlikely to make concrete progress for in getting legitimacy the Taliban has achieved its immediate and medium-term aim.
With the global community accepting the Taliban as a leading Afghan player, India must nimbly remain in the diplomatic game. It should continue its strong support to the Afghan government and also open up with the Taliban. The two positions are not contradictory.
(Vivek Katju is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and ex-Ambassador to Afghanistan. His views are personal)
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