The Afghan Taliban are on the verge of a colossal propaganda victory. They are about to stage a huge diplomatic coup. The deal between the United States and the Taliban, which is aimed at ending America’s unsuccessful military involvement in its longest war, is about to be signed soon. The deadline is 1 September. The ninth round of discussions with the Taliban is underway in Doha, and the Taliban leadership is keen to ensure that all prominent field commanders are taken into confidence before the announcement. The signing ceremony is likely to be held in Doha in the presence of representatives from important countries.
The devil lies in the details. Although all the details of the deal are not out now, Washington has made up its mind to withdraw American troops, down to about 8,000 now. The fact that the Taliban have seriously remained engaged in all nine rounds of negotiations only demonstrates their seriousness. The Taliban have agreed to cut ties with al-Qaeda and other global jihadists and enter into peace talks with the representatives of the Afghan government. However, a small ‘counterterrorism’ American military unit is likely to remain stationed in Afghanistan.
But there are apprehensions that if the US withdraws under current conditions, the fragile Afghan government will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, and the Taliban will sooner than later occupy Kabul. They will then establish the so-called ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’. There is a strong possibility of the US-Taliban deal mentioning the term ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ while referring to the Taliban. This would be nothing short of a disaster. Any reference to the former Taliban regime (1996-2001) will be an embarrassing and harmful concession. The former Taliban regime was recognised by only three governments – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It had acquired notoriety for its brutal and repressive rule, which was based on its own interpretation of the Sharia law. Although the Taliban often claimed to bring about peace and stability in the country, it was commonly referred to as the “peace of the graveyard”.
What after the withdrawal of US troops
A US-Taliban deal will allow US President Donald Trump to follow through on his electoral commitment to withdraw American troops before the 2020 presidential elections, as there is widespread consensus in the US political establishment to terminate American commitment in Afghanistan. The reasons are not difficult to understand; after almost two decades of indecisive war, the Taliban are still in a commanding position, showing no signs of either retreat or extinction. The Taliban currently control or contest more than half the country’s territory. But the most important question is: can the Taliban be trusted?
The Taliban have always considered the Afghan government to be American “puppets”, and that is one reason why the Taliban have continued to refuse to have direct negotiations with Afghan government officials. And their contempt for the Afghan government is likely to increase after the deal is finalised with America. Ordinary Afghans are extremely concerned that the US is once again going to abandon them as they have no confidence in the survivability of the Afghan government. In order to quell the doubts, Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief US negotiator with the Taliban, has assured the Afghans that America “will defend Afghan forces now and after any agreement.”
There is growing perception in Washington that America’s deal with the Taliban will be followed by a nationwide ceasefire and subsequent intra-Afghan talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban. But if the intra-Afghan peace talks fail, ethnic civil war conditions, similar to that of the 1990s, are likely to follow when violent infighting among the mujahideen had brought intolerable hardships to the inhabitants of Afghanistan. So, any temporary political gains from the exit will be outweighed by the huge damage to America’s global reputation and long-term interests. A hasty American drawdown will likely exacerbate instability and chaos in Afghanistan, paving the way for the Taliban to seize power at the expense of other ethnic groups. This will only end up aggravating the ethnic divisions in Afghanistan, while reviving the fortunes of the al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations.
A victory over Western world for Taliban
One must not forget that after the 9/11 attacks, the US had blamed the Taliban for sheltering al-Qaeda terrorists.
Some Pakistan-based terrorist groups had also found shelter in Afghanistan during this period. Pakistan’s security establishment had helped the Taliban grow and spread in the 1990s. It had also sheltered the remnants of the Taliban regime after the US militarily routed them from Afghanistan in 2001. The covert relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban, and the provision of safe havens to the group, is too well-known to be repeated. Besides illicit drug trade and smuggling operations, Pakistani largesse continues to sustain the Taliban insurgency. American reliance on Pakistan to influence the Taliban in keeping their promises seems misplaced. Will the Pakistani security forces be able to guard the Durand Line effectively in order to prevent the Islamic State in Khorasan (ISK) from creating a presence in Pakistan’s northeastern tribal regions?
Most importantly, the concerns are not unfounded that the Taliban, contrary to their public statements, are not willing to share power with the Kabul regime. There is no guarantee that the Taliban will join the Afghan government and work hand-in-hand in fighting the IS-K. However, they might also cooperate with the remaining American ‘counterterrorism’ force to expel the global jihadists including the al-Qaeda and the IS-K out of Afghanistan. But there can be little disagreement in arguing that the Taliban’s primary aim is to finalise a political deal with the US that would pave the way for the latter’s eventual withdrawal from their country.
Those who believe that the deal with the Taliban will reduce violence must see their actions on the battlefield. The Taliban is most likely to claim the deal as their ideological triumph over the Western world. They will spread this narrative that it was their religious commitment that forced the US to negotiate an exit, just as the mujahideen had expelled the Soviet Union; this narrative might provide the inspiration for Islamist radicals around the world to seek refuge in Afghanistan. Even if the US is not threatened immediately, the global jihadists would attempt to return to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Cracks in Taliban
Another worry associated with the deal is about imminent defections from the Taliban. There are many hardcore and ideologically-driven Taliban leaders who are not particularly happy about their leadership’s decision to end all association with the jihadist elements as part of the deal.
No one knows what would be the stance of the Haqqani Network, a lethal group with the Taliban that has some tactical understandings with the IS-K in many parts of its operations. As part of the deal, the Taliban would be obliged to fight against the IS-K. Will these Taliban factions turn their fury against the IS-K? And if these hardcore factions eventually decide to leave the Taliban in considerable numbers and join the IS-K, there would be chaos all around. The IS-K has been regularly absorbing disgruntled jihadists from the Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In such a scenario, some former Afghan warlords, who already defy Kabul’s dictates, may also attempt to develop their own personal fiefdoms in the country.
The Indian government is not oblivious to the myriad challenges ahead in Afghanistan. But surprisingly, when Pakistan recently attempted to link the Kashmir issue with developments in Afghanistan, the Taliban declared that “linking the issue of Kashmir with that of Afghanistan by some parties will not aid in improving the crisis at hand because Afghanistan is not related nor should Afghanistan be turned into theatre of competition between other countries.” So, it is difficult to figure out whether this stance marks a strategic shift in the Taliban’s attitude or just tactical manoeuvring to avoid delay in the peace deal.
The author is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice. Views are personal.
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