With the Afghan peace deal on hold due to its infirmities and COVID-19, India has its role cut out: To open a back channel with the Taliban and carve out a place in intra-Afghan dialogue
For the Americans especially, the most spectacular political event in the first quarter of 2020 was the signing of the Afghanistan peace deal between the US and the Taliban at Doha and simultaneously, a US-Afghanistan agreement at Kabul. The first agreement fructified after many nations, including Russia and China, failed to broker one. However imperfect, indeed flawed, for US President Donald Trump, the deal is meant to be a game-changer for his re-election later this year. He will bring back 4,000 US soldiers by August and the remaining 12,000 by July 2021.
The International Crisis Group, Brussels, described the agreement as “ambiguous and at places contradictory, leading to confusion.” The anomalies have already been discussed threadbare. The agreements have opened two new mechanisms: Direct military channel between the US military commander at Kabul with the Taliban at Doha; and a new Afghanistan-Pakistan dialogue facilitated by America, aimed at border security and ending terrorist safe-havens.
Trump was overwhelmed by the agreements but acknowledged in response to a question that the Taliban could seize power after the US and Nato forces leave Afghanistan. “Yes, that is possible…US’ commitment to Afghanistan comes with an expiry date,” he said. The swearing-in of the two Afghan Presidents in the same building created its own confusion dynamics but this time around, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, instead of mediating between them, threatened to cut $1 billion from security funding, not just for this year but also next year. The prisoner swap — of 5,000 Taliban for 1,000 Afghan soldiers — is also stuck on the modalities of release and the Taliban not reducing violence, leading to a comprehensive ceasefire. For the first time, the US mission in Afghanistan has refused to disclose the details of ground operations and casualties. But the office of Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor said that the Taliban has carried out 2,804 attacks since the peace agreement was signed on February 29.
The mother of all problems on both sides, the Taliban and its adversaries, is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has invaded the presidential palace, too. The first Corona case in Afghanistan was detected at Herat on February 24. On May 4, 3,894 positive cases were reported with 400 recoveries and 90 deaths. The highest incidence of cases is in Herat due to its proximity to Iran and several thousand Afghan refugees are returning home. A Coronavirus task force, led by Vice President Amrullah Saleh, former head of National Directorate of Security, along with a technical team from the National Security Council attached to it has been established. It is feared that if the pandemic is not contained, it could spread to central Asia.
India has been relatively active in Afghanistan following the signing of the peace agreements. Its consistency in refusing to open the channels with the Taliban is remarkably amazing. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar likened the US-Taliban deal with a long-awaited film, Pakeezah, and its 17 trailers, employing his emblematic phraseology: “We will watch this space for outcomes.”
Interestingly, India had stopped short of welcoming the agreements. Instead, the Ministry of External Affairs had noted that the “entire political spectrum in Afghanistan welcomed the opportunity for peace and stability.” Jaishankar has maintained India’s position that the gains of the last 18 years must be preserved. New Delhi was quick to acknowledge Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s victory in the presidential elections, overlooking loyal partner Abdullah Abdullah, whose family our country has hosted for several years. A deal between Ghani and Abdullah is in the making where the latter has proposed his name as Executive Prime Minister and leader of the talks team with the Taliban.
For the second time in three months, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said that his organisation would want good relations in the neighbourhood on the basis of mutual interest and respect. “We will never want any foreign organisation to use the Afghan soil to target another country.” On February 29, Taliban supremo Hibatullah Akhundzada said that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan believes in sound relations with the world and the region.
The recent attack on a Gurudwara in Kabul that killed 25 Sikhs whereby it is not clear if the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) or the Haqqani Network was in the works, has sent a chilling message for the future of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operations in Afghanistan targetting Indian assets. The arrest of ISIS-K leader, Abdullah Orakzai, a Pakistani national, by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) recently will open up new trails. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) has claimed that ISIS-K has been virtually eliminated, including its top leaders, an achievement hailed by Ghani as the defeat of the ISIS-K. The Taliban, assisted by US firepower, apparently played a lead role in this victory. Latest threat assessments prompted India to withdraw two of its four consulates in Afghanistan at Herat and Jalalabad with two others in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif remaining in place. Both these consulates have been targetted in the past too — Jalalabad has been attacked four times since 2007, even forcing its relocation in 2016. Herat was attacked in 2014 and Mazar-e-Sharif in 2013. The Jaish-e-Mohmmad and the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, in concert with the Haqqanis, were involved in these attacks.
The optimistic inference drawn from the US interlocutor Zalmay Khalilzad’s recent conversation with Jaishankar, enquiring on the COVID-19 pandemic and briefing him on the progress in the agreement with the Taliban, that India is now part of the peace process is highly misplaced. Expectations were raised by former President Hamid Karzai when he said at the Raisina Dialogue in January and more recently after the Khalilzad-Jaishankar conversation that India should be part of the peace process. Similarly, Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai, head of the Ghani-appointed 21-member talks team with the Taliban, said at a conference that India should be part of the regional conference on Afghanistan. Pakistan will never allow India to come inside the tent. Jaishankar knows it and will be watching that space keenly.
After all, the peace deal is a troop extrication agreement, not part of a peace process as the two agreements signed at Doha and Kabul are apparently not interlinked. Even so, last week, Khalilzad had urged the Taliban to observe peace and suspend offensive military operations during Ramadan as it was an opportunity for humanitarian ceasefire, at least till the Coronavirus crisis was over.
The Afghans are unhappy that the Taliban has pledged not to attack the US and other foreign forces but is continuing to kill fellow Afghans. With the implementation of the peace deal on hold due to its infirmities and COVID-19, India has its role cut out: To open back channel with the Taliban; hasten bridging the gap between Ghani and Abdullah, vital for the cohesion of national response to Taliban; re-deploy consulates at Herat and Jalalabad as soon as feasible; and carve out a place in intra-Afghan dialogue.
(The writer, a retired Major General, was Commander IPKF South, Sri Lanka and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff.)