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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 29, New Delhi, July 4, 2020

Russian bounty killing forces Trump’s hands on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

Saturday 4 July 2020, by M K Bhadrakumar

As expected, the controversy over Russia’s alleged bounties for killing American and NATO troops in Afghanistan is steadily snowballing. The New York Times has come out with more leaks such as bank transfers from accounts identified with the Russian military intelligence to the Taliban, “hawala” transactions as well as the Afghan government’s assistance to the US intelligence to zero in on the Russian-Taliban nexus.

Meanwhile, the US Congress is seized of the matter, possibly triggering another “Russiagate”. The Democrats are on the warpath. Top White House aides are briefing the Senate Intelligence Committee later today.

The Times also featured today an Op-Ed on this topic by former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who is widely mentioned as a possible vice-presidential running mate on the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s ticket in the November elections. Rice tore into President Trump and his key aides.

To be sure, the controversy will seriously impact the endgame in Afghanistan. The first sign of it appeared on Tuesday when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a video conference with the Taliban’s deputy head and chief negotiator at Doha, Mullah Baradar. The White House readout said Pompeo discussed with the Taliban leader the implementation of the Doha pact of February on the Afghan peace process and “made clear the (US) expectation for the Taliban to live up to their commitments, which include not attacking Americans.”

Evidently, the White House is directly warning the Taliban against against any attacks on the US troops. An AP report cited the Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen as tweeting that Pompeo and Baradar also “discussed ways of moving … forward” the implementation of the Doha pact.

The White House is anxious that the intra-Afghan peace talks should take place without further delay so that the US troop withdrawal can be announced. There were reports recently that a decision to withdraw another 4000 American troops out of the 8600-strong contingent is under consideration.

In the light of the present controversy over alleged Russian bounty killings and given the likelihood of Congressional hearings, Trump will be keen to summarily withdraw all troops from Afghanistan. The US special representative for reconciliation with the Taliban Zalmay Khalilzad has also reached Doha for discussions with Mullah Baradar.

All in all, the series of Times reports since June 26 has compelled the White House to kickstart the intra-Afghan peace talks somehow, where a complete ceasefire tops the agenda of discussion. The Times reports significantly weaken the US’ capacity to influence the outcome of the intra-Afghan peace talks.

The US stands badly isolated in the region. The controversy over bounty killings has upset Moscow and in turn makes it impossible to carry forward any US-Russian cooperation and coordination over the intra-Afghan peace talks, as was envisaged earlier.

At the same time, the US-China tensions are spinning out of control and Washington is no longer in a position to leverage Beijing’s cooperation in the Afghan peace process. Similarly, Washington is on a collision course with Tehran following Pompeo’s appearance at the UN Security Council on Tuesday to formally table the US proposal seeking an extension of the UN embargo on arms supplies to Iran.

Russia and China have made it clear that they will veto any such US resolution, which, in turn, may lead to Pompeo pressing a claim to invoke the snapback clause of the Iran nuclear deal to kill the 2015 agreement. Heightened tensions can be expected between Washington and Tehran in the weeks and months ahead.

With Russia, China and Iran on a path of confrontation with the US, the burden falls entirely on the Trump administration to carry froward the Afghan peace process. The US’ reliance on Pakistan becomes more critical than ever before. (Khalilzad is set to travel to Islamabad this week.)

Clearly, the initiative is slipping out of the American hands to script its exit strategy in Afghanistan. To be sure, Taliban will negotiate from a position fo strength. Mullah Baradar reportedly made humiliating demands to Pompeo during the videoconference yesterday.

Given the unfriendly mood in the three key regional capitals — Moscow, Tehran and Beijing — Washington may be left with no choice now but to cut loose and make its way for the exit door as quickly as possible. Trump will not risk a prolonged stay for the troops in Afghanistan.

Curiously, there is an eerie similarity to the Afghan situation around the Geneva Accords of April 1988 between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the US and the Soviet Union serving as guarantors.

The Geneva Accords had envisaged a matrix of several elements — principally, a bilateral agreement between Islamabad and Kabul on the principles of mutual good neighbourly relations; a declaration on international guarantees, signed by the Soviet Union and the US; and a Pak-Afghan agreement on the interrelationships for the settlement of the Afghan situation as such, which was witnessed by the Soviet Union and the US.

It was an impressive peace agreement but it was still-born and its only positive outcome was that Moscow faithfully (and eagerly) observed the agreement’s provisions for the timetable of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. (The Soviet contingent completed the withdrawal on 15th February 1989.)

The intra-Afghan peace talks will also be taking place in a dismal setting involving two intransigent protagonists (Afghan government and Taliban), and two “guarantors” (the US and Pakistan) pursuing different priorities. Again, the only positive outcome of the intra-Afghan peace talks might be that it will have put an end to the 2-decade old American occupation of Afghanistan.

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