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

Is Peace in Afghanistan a Chimera?

Monday 9 March 2020, by Apratim Mukarji

The “historic” agreement between the Taliban and United States was signed, as scheduled, on February 29 in Doha, in the presence of Pakistan, Qatar (the host and a major facilitator), India (anxious to avoid any association in the beginning but, following the talks between US President Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India, was present at a higher level than originally planned), Indonesia (the largest Muslim nation), Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (both regional players and intimately involved in Afghanistan).

The agreement allows fourteen months for the American troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. The wording is quite specific that the agreement would allow a 14-month timetable for the withdrawal of “all military forces of the United States, its allies, and coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisers, and supporting services personnel”.

It is not known now how the Afghan forces will view this particular wording as the withdrawal of trainers will directly hit them as will the non-availability of advisers. Though primarily these two categories are meant solely for American troops, the deficiencies in these departments in the Afghan forces have long persuaded the Americans to help the local troops in these aspects as well.

The “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” was signed by US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who was also the chief negotiator for the American Government, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, educated in the United States, who acted as the Taliban’s chief negotiator. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, witnessed the signing of the agreement. “This is a hopeful moment,” Pompeo said after the ceremony. “but it’s only the beginning. There’s a great deal of hard work ahead on the diplomatic front.”

However, it should be noted that even the Americans continue to be engaged in publicly airing their own misgivings. Pompeo himself said, “I know there will be a temptation to declare victory, but victory for Afghans will only be achieved when they can live in peace and prosper.” Sticking to its own agenda, the Trump Administration at the same time decided to continue to be upbeat about the peace prospects with the Taliban. “Today is a monumental day for Afghanistan. It is about making peace and creating a common brighter future. We stand with Afghanistan,” the US embassy in Kabul twitted.

In sharp contrast to the general sense of doubts, the Taliban took every opportunity to declare that the deal is one more step towards ultimate victory. The Taliban leader, Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, said, “This is the kind of day that our ancestors celebrated after they defeated the British and the Soviets.” The signing ceremony was followed by a jubilant march by the Taliban through the streets of Doha announcing to the world their one more notch at the eventual victory they were sensing.

 For obvious reasons, the Afghan Government stuck to sobriety saying that it stood ready to negotiate and “conclude a ceasefire”, the very essence of a probable and enduring peace. Of course, sticking to the already-done terms of the deal in framing which it had played no role at all, it affirmed its support for the phased and eventual withdrawal of the US and coalition forces. It added that it remained committed to preventing militant groups from using its soil to threaten the security of the United States and other countries.

The aftermath of the signing of the agreement represented the crossing of the first hurdle which took over a year to be successfully negotiated. Now begins the second hurdle, the work on the diplomatic front. With the United States troop support gone after fourteen weeks, the Afghan Government of President Ashraf Ghani and his troops are bound to feel disabled to a large extent. Pakistan’s solemn pledge to help its western neighbour can at best be taken with a large pinch of salt. Ghani has sought future support from India as well and New Delhi has dutifully pledged its support which should be sounding quite strongly and assuredly in Ghani’s ears. But the hard reality is that an assured availability of the United States’ military support is the lone factor which has propped up popular governments and the hard-earned Constitution thus far.

These misgivings exist, and exist quite resoundingly, because the hurried manner in which the peace deal with the Taliban has been conceived by United States President Donald Trump and now brought to fruition defies logic if one abides by the current behavioural pattern of the insurgent force. It could well be that for the sake of formality, Ghani expressed his “hope” that the deal will bring peace to his country. But this pales into a virtual nothingness when it is juxtaposed against the reality.

Though the week-long “Reduction in Violence” period to test the Taliban’s sincerity in a longstanding and meaningful peace deal began on February 22 and ended on February 28, it was marred by several displays of the typical Taliban aggression against both the Americans and the Afghans. Yet, President Trump and his Administration continued to exude confidence that the proposed deal would stick.

This was in sharp contrast to last year’s abrupt cancellation of peace talks with the insurgents after one single American military contractor was killed along with several Afghans. In his characteristic fashion, President Trump was infuriated by the American’s death and not by those of the Afghans who died along with him.

A similar disdain for Afghan lives colours his comprehensive approach to Afghanistan. In this interim period, he made no bones about his intention to withdraw American forces as quickly as possible from the country irrespective of what eventually befalls the fate of the Afghans. Will the Taliban maintain their word that they will work in tandem with the Afghan political elements and the Afghan Government with the purpose of bringing peace and development to the badly war-torn country? Will they honour the women and foreign workers and maintain the social and economic gains that they have earned since 2001?

Most of all, the question that continues to bother the Afghans is: if the Taliban will still insist on imposing the Sharia law all over the country and abolish the Constitution. Whatever freedoms the women have gained in these years are through the successful working of the constitutional provisions. Women parliamentarians have proved to be extremely valuable for the country’s social, legal and economic freedom.

The Taliban have all along asserted that they will not abide by the Constitution and by the laws enacted so far since these are anti-Islam. Will they now retreat from their long-held beliefs and practices? Until the peace deal is fully executed, it will not be possible to hazard a guess. But if the Taliban’s behaviour till now, even after the so-called “Reduction in Violence” week has commenced, is a safe barometer, then only a deliberate ploy of ignoring the reality can persuade one to trust in their honesty.

President Trump appears to have decided to bank on a particular development. After President Ashraf Ghani was virtually forced to go to Pakistan for talks with Prime Minister Imran Khan and came back ostensibly satisfied with his neighbour’s attitude for peace, Trump decided to flaunt it as a major breakthrough and indicated that his policy is working satisfactorily. His hands were strengthened when a senior leader of the Northern Alliance which is very much set against Ghani, Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, issued a statement lauding the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as part of the One Belt One Road (OBOR or BRI) and expressed his wish that the initiative shall be extended to his country in order to expedite development.

“China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a very important project,” Mohaqiq said on January 19, 2020 in an interview to the Diplomag Magazine. “This would provide the basis for (the) success of the BRI. It could also prove to be a real game-changer for the whole region. Success of the CPEC will have a very good effect on the whole region and China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Central Asian states would benefit. All these countries can get the best advantage of this project.”

Referring to the recent announcement by Pakistan of a connectivity project to link with Kabul, he said, “It is a very important project on the first stage if we just discussed Pakistan and Afghanistan. So, it will be a very important motorway to connect Pakistan and Afghanistan. This highway is basically up to Kabul, and it will not end in Jalalabad. So, it will have mutual trade benefits for both the brotherly neigh-bours.” The transportation of goods could be facilitated through this highway to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

India appears to have decided for the time being to swim with the tide and be on its guard for any eventuality. But that it is doing all this with its tongue firmly stuck in the cheek is also obvious. Analysing why the peace deal could actually fructify, former ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar says, “The Haqqani network takes the cue from Islamabad and Sirajuddin’s (Haqqani) opinion piece (which was highlighted by the Voice of America later) signals that Islamabad wants the ‘reduction in violence’ pact to be displayed on the ground. Indeed, Sirajuddin’s piece also signifies his metamor-phosis from a branded terrorist to a political figure which is how most insurgencies end. Washington is well aware that the Haqqani group was responsible for terrorist attacks on the Indian diplomatic establishments in Afghanistan. But today US self-interest dictates that Sirajuddin’s mainstreaming in Afghan political life and potential elevation eventually to a leadership role at the national level is useful and necessary, since he can deliver peace. As for Pakistan, it can rest assured that a regime in Kabul with Sirajuddin (Haqqani) in a commanding role will be amenable and never play footsie with Indians.” The peace deal has finally been accomplished because, at the same time as taming Sirajuddin, the US Administration worked successfully in “finessing” the Afghan President...What offer the Americans (Pompeo, Defence Secretary Mark Esper and the US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad) made on the sidelines of the recent Munich Security Conference.

Bhadrakumar wonders what kind of offer the Americans made that persuaded Ghani to agree to a deal with the Taliban, pointing out that “we do not know yet, but he has overnight turned into a believer and enthusiastic supporter of the ‘reduction in violence’ pact between the Trump Administration and the Taliban. It is entirely conceivable that Ghani’s next move after the Munich appeasement on return to Kabul—announcements of the results of last week’s presidential election—would have tacit US approval.”

Not bound by any of the diplomatic niceties and compulsions like the others, the Afghan political opposition has come out with strong indictments of the peace deal and its precursor, the “reduction in violence” agreement. The former President, Hamid Karzai, and the current chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, both lashed out at the developments. Karzai referred derisively to the elections as a process that was imposed on the Afghan people under the name of “elections” and was not a “national” process in contrast to the values of democracy. The election process fundamentally served “foreign agendas”, which aimed at weakening Afghanistan’s national sovereignty and created division among the people so that “foreigners can implement their plans”. A very strong condemnation, indeed.

However, such reservations have since been successfully sidelined by the United States helped largely by a pliant United Nations which will eventually be tasked to ensure that the peace deal is fully implemented, placing the Taliban on the driving seat in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the chief mentor of a future Afghanistan.

The Afghan opposition and the Afghans including enlighened Pashtuns and the mino-rities like the Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks who are alreay marginalised and who will be further rendered irrelevant in the future Afghanistan. Instead of a modern and tolerant Afghanistan, India and others in the region will have to learn to live wit a Talibanised Afghanistan with all its conceivable fall-outs.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs and has recently authored Annihilating the Demons of Sri Lanka : An Unfinished Story.

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