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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 12, New Delhi, March 7, 2020

The Doha Agreement

Monday 9 March 2020

by Mahendra Ved

History may or may not repeat in Afghanistan. But past and present damages to its people are unlikely to be repaired anytime soon. They may even persist and multiply, after the ‘historic’ peace deal signed by the USA and the Taliban at Doha, Qatar, on February 29, envisaging phased withdrawal of American troops over the next 14 months.

The deal does not envisage any presence of American boots on the Afghan soil, which is different from what the US had mooted earlier. The manner of withdrawal for the US from its longest war abroad (over 18 years) seems worse than Vietnam, after spending US $ 750 billion and losing 2,532 soldiers.

The irony lies in the fact that the world’s sole superpower has signed a deal with the very people who plotted 9/11, the September 2001 aerial attack on twin towers that had prompted the US invasion of Afghanistan. In return, it has received undertaking that the Taliban, which emerged as the sole arbiter though not formally holding office in Kabul, will not allow the Afghan soil to be used for terrorism against the US (read Al Qaida, IS). But the ability to verify and/or enforce the conditions imposed on the Taliban in the deal appears minimal.

It is a victory for the Taliban. They have not only survived after being ousted from power, but living in Pakistan and with its support, have fought to control nearly 40 per cent of the Afghan territory, defying the Kabul Government and an international military force that at one time exceeded 150,000. At the end, the sons of the soil have prevailed, no matter what the world thinks. Targeting even schools and hospitals, the Taliban only ‘reduced’ violence for a week to be ‘eligible’ to sign the deal. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed since both sides were keen to conclude the deal as planned. For doing so, they also ignored the clashes that killed 19 security personnel and four civilians in Afghanistan last week.

President Donald Trump has pushed the deal for possible electoral gains. It is the culmination of his overriding desire to quit Afghanistan, in which his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, had failed. That 22 Republican lawmakers expressed concern a day before that the ‘dangerous’ deal may place “American interests at the mercy of Taliban” did not matter.

The agreement is full of uncertainties and needs to be viewed with great skepticism. Any peace is likely to remain elusive. Cynically put, this is but a new chapter in the historical “Great Game” fought over centuries between the erstwhile British Empire and the Russian Czars, down to the present.

A major variation is the entry of China and decisive role for its ally Pakistan. Having facilitated the deal by clever and controlled release of Taliban leaders it hosted for two decades, Pakistan gets a big diplomatic and strategic advantage.

That Mullah Baradar, the Taliban signatory to the pact, mentioned these two, besides Russia and Iran, but omitted mention of India, should surprise nobody. India is friendless in Afghanistan, again.

India remains where it is. Foreign Secretary Harshvardhan Shringla rushed to Kabul a day before the Doha event and assured support to “all opportunities that can bring peace, security and stability in Afghanistan; end violence; cut ties with international terrorism; and lead to a lasting political settlement through an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process”. In this formulation, the mention of “Afghan-controlled” is what India has always desired, but it doesn’t seem tenable with the geopolitical shift.

Since 2002, India invested three billion dollars and earned Afghan goodwill. It will continue to do so since this is what Trump advised to Modi last month. That is the only viable option, amidst Pakistan’s hostile role. Some Indian quarters are foolishly suggesting a military role for India, though.

India faces serious disadvantages. It will have fewer friends now and no tacit Western backing that it enjoyed for 18 years. For one, its intelligence sharing with the Afghans that worked to mutual advantage may end.

The Haqqani group that targeted the US remains strong but may shift focus elsewhere, possibly India. Like it had happened after the Soviets left. Forces inimical to India could gain ground in Afghanistan, with active Pakistani support. As a bulwark against this, India’s August 5, 2019 nullification of Jammu and Kashmir’s Statehood, howsoever controversial and undemocratic, acquires significance.

Although triumphal, Pakistan also has its disadvantages. Many of the Afghan refugees, that numbered nearly 4.5 million, have returned home. But over 2.5 million still remain. The Doha agreement does not guarantee the refugees’ repatriation from areas that are prone to armed militancy. Pakistan should worry about more crime and drug-peddling and that the land-locked Afghanistan will remain turbulent, also distrustful, and yet abjectly dependent.

It’s a miracle that Afghanistan, though politically and ethnically divided, remains a single territorial entity. The US pact is with the dominant Pashtuns. Where would that leave the Tajiks and the Uzbeks in the north and Hazaras and the Shia minority in the west?

Many players are the same who fought the Soviet forces in the 1980s.They include Abdul Rasul Sayaaf, Shia leader Ismail Khan, and Uzbek leader Abdur Rashid Dostum. Some of them aligned themselves with the Taliban, including CIA-ISI favourites Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the one-time “butcher of Kabul” who has lost much of firepower and relevance, and Jalaluddin Haqqani. The last-named was at one time described as “goodness personified” by US officials. The Americans changed their minds after 9/11. The ISI didn’t.

It cannot be anyone’s case that the US should have remained permanently in Afghanistan. Looking back, the Americans made the same mistake as their Soviet foes did in the 1980s in launching an unwinnable war. They succumbed to the same hubris that drove the Soviets. Once the Russians left—to eventually disintegrate as a superpower—the Western powers too left Afghanistan to marauding warlords, most string-pulled by Pakistan. The same is repeating, leaving Afghanistan—poor and ungovernable.

The only difference with the US was that they gave it a democratic label. But their current chosen leader, President Ashraf Ghani, kept out of Doha, remains in a limbo, challenged by his CEO, Dr Abdullah. He has challenged the US-brokered outcome of the presidential election. The US is actually quitting in a hurry, before the Ghani-Abdullah fight escalates, likely on ethnic lines, and before others join in.

Peace remains elusive after four decades of conflict. One faint hope remains. In an article in the New York Times last month, Taliban deputy chief Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote that mistakes of the 1990s will not be repeated in 2020. Whether that includes a better treatment to women and religious and tribal minorities remains to be seen.

The author, who worked in major national newspapers and has now retired, is the President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) and editor of the commonwealthnews.com He is the co-author of three books on Afghanistan including Afghan Buzkhashi: Great Game and Gamesmen.

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