Twenty years is a long time for stabilising any conflict-ridden country, but Afghanistan has frequently defied timelines and solutions. It has been one year since the United States and the Afghan Taliban signed a landmark agreement leading to a political settlement between Kabul and the Islamic insurgents. However, the February 2020 Doha agreement and the subsequent negotiations have failed to bring Afghanistan anywhere near peace, even as the Joe Biden administration is hard-pressed to make a final decision regarding the withdrawal of the US troops. For obvious reasons, India wants the US to remain invested in Afghanistan, militarily, diplomatically and economically.
The US-Taliban agreement had stipulated the exit of American troops; extracted guarantees from the Taliban to end its terrorist activities; and required a negotiated settlement leading to a ceasefire among warring factions. However, the pace and the manner of implementation of the agreement have caused worry for Washington, Kabul, and other stakeholders. With the deadlines on many important components – release of prisoners, lifting of sanctions, etc. – being postponed several times, the negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul have not made much headway.
But neither side has kept all its commitments; the Taliban has not reduced attacks on government troops; the Afghan government has not pursued the negotiations seriously; and the US has not taken decisive steps to lift the sanctions against the Taliban following the stalemate in talks. As all sides are feeling extremely dissatisfied in the current scenario, the Biden administration needs to clarify its position regarding the deal as well as drawdown of troops.
US troops in Afghanistan — can’t stay, can’t leave
The biggest difficulty in keeping troops in Afghanistan after 1 May 2021 is that it would automatically trigger the termination of the Doha agreement, with the Taliban likely withdrawing from negotiations and resuming hostilities against US troops. The Taliban has already launched a campaign of assassinations targeting judges and journalists.
Should the Biden administration go ahead with the withdrawal plan even at the risk of plunging Afghanistan into further chaos and bloodbath? During the latest Congressional hearing, Gen Joseph F. Dunford, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now with Afghan Study Group of the US Institute of Peace, has underlined the probability of civil war in the wake of a sudden US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In the backdrop of Kabul’s troubled relationship with the Donald Trump administration due to the latter’s insistence on an early US exit, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is now hoping for a policy review of the Doha accord because Biden has stepped into the White House. In a recent interview with the BBC, Ghani even sounded optimistic after NATO’s announcement that it has made no decision on the drawdown of close to 10,000 troops from Afghanistan.
Fear of ‘Taliban rule’ — the driving force
Fearing a shift in American policy, the Taliban, in an open letter in mid-February, asked the Biden administration to implement the Doha accord, including the withdrawal of all troops, arguing that it had committed to its side of the bargain – to secure US security interests in Afghanistan. New Delhi must also engage the US and NATO to resist a sudden military withdrawal.
The readout of the most recent telephone call between US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and President Ghani also makes it clear that Washington wants a reduction of violence in Afghanistan. And when asked about Biden’s opinion on the prospect of Taliban ruling from Kabul, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, clearly said on 24 February that the president would not be comfortable if the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, implying that a process review of the agreement is under way.
Indian leadership is also opposed to Taliban’s return to power in Kabul since the Taliban are a product of Pakistan’s military establishment that seeks to exercise a long-term hold over Kabul. Indian commitment to the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan has never been in doubt; New Delhi recently signed the $300-million Shahtoot dam project that will provide clean drinking water to Kabul. Despite having huge interests in Afghanistan and the near impossibility of preventing the Taliban’s triumphant march in Kabul, New Delhi’s fear of engaging the Taliban and thereby lending legitimacy to the insurgent group stems from its consequences in Kashmir.
Both India and US have a dilemma
Biden faces a dilemma because the political establishment in Washington is not keen to stay a day longer in Afghanistan than necessary. Since sending more troops until final peace will only result in an open-ended stay, and a continued US military presence is critical to persuading the Taliban to negotiate, one of the workable solutions could be a six-month extension of the process, as advocated by Barnett Rubin, an American political scientist. He argues that resetting the timeline is likely to enable both sides to benefit from the positive elements of the Doha agreement.
In order to achieve its interests as well as stabilise Afghanistan, India has been trying to devise new diplomacy with the friendly countries, in particular Russia and Iran. But Moscow still seems to have different ideas. Russia’s Presidential Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, who recently visited Pakistan, has said that Moscow would soon convene a meeting to create a mechanism leading to the announcement of a ceasefire. He has also hinted at involving the US, China, Iran, and Pakistan in the process.
But India was missing from Kabulov’s calculations. Following Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar’s three-day important visit to Moscow on 24-27 February, Russia’s “message” to the Taliban is to avoid escalation on the ground. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asked the Taliban “to respect the already agreed upon terms and conditions for holding direct intra-Afghan talks, and not to put forward any new preliminary requirements,” besides respecting “the UN Security Council resolutions.” This statement is very crucial, and as interpreted by Atmar, Russia is not in favour of removing the Taliban leaders’ names from the UN blacklist without progress in the Afghan peace talks.
Although Lavrov did say that Russia “will continue our contacts with the key external players, which include the United States, China, Pakistan, India, Iran, and the Central Asian countries. These contacts should help ensure the success of direct and inclusive intra-Afghan talks,” he, however, emphasised Kabulov’s formulation of the crux of Russia’s diplomatic effort in Afghanistan through the “expanded Threesome – Russia, the US and China – with Pakistan’s involvement,” Thus, it would be too early to conclude that Russia has made a decisive shift in its position on either the Taliban or the stay of American troops.
Having organised some high-profile conferences over the last three years, Russia has often waded into the diplomatic conflict resolution efforts in Afghanistan. In the last week of January, a delegation of the Taliban visited Moscow. Moreover, the Taliban is reported to be discussing trade policies in regional capitals, which is not only a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Ghani regime but also indicates its growing confidence. Against this backdrop, the odds are not in favour of peace returning to Afghanistan anytime soon.
The author is assistant professor, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. Views are personal.