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US-Taliban deal puts the onus of ending the Afghanistan war on Asian forces

In the long run, if the Taliban are back in Kabul, India’s infrastructure investments in Afghanistan will be at the risk of being seized. Besides, New Delhi will lose a friendly government in Kabul. Worse, Islamabad’s close partners may be in office once again.

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot , Vihang Jumle | Updated: March 13, 2020 11:01:35 am
Aghanistan Taliban US peace talk, India Afghanistan Taliban, Afghan Taliban peace talks, Pakistan India Taliban, India in Afghanistan, us taliban peace pact, taliban peace pact signing, us taliban ties, india us taliban, indian express news What does the American withdrawal from Afghanistan mean for India? (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

After over two years of dramatic back and forth, the US and Taliban signed a deal on February 29 to re-establish peace in the war-torn country. This deal — which could potentially put an end to America’s longest war — includes a timeline for the conditional and phased withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, themes for intra-Afghan negotiations and the Taliban’s commitment to not fuel terrorrism in the region. Representatives from India, the US, UN, Pakistan, the Taliban and Afghanistan were part of this gathering. All US and NATO troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan within 14 months should the “militants” uphold the deal.

The deal is not a full-fledged peace treaty but merely a pre-agreement; a way to get the Taliban and the Afghan government together at the negotiating table. The Afghan government and the Taliban are now expected to talk and fix things themselves.

As per the agreement, the US will reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 personnel within the first 135 days. Approximately 5,000 Taliban prisoners are to be exchanged for a thousand Afghan security force prisoners, starting on March 10. The US is also expected to lift sanctions against the Taliban. All of this is primarily to meet US President Donald Trump’s domestic objective — his presidential re-election. This agreement will allow him to show that he managed to get US troops back home and end a deadly war. The motive may, however, be larger. Sure, a portion of these troops may return home, but some of them may be re-positioned within the Middle East — too sensitive a region for the US to leave open for Russia and China.

But why did the Taliban sign the deal? Such a deal, by pushing American troops out of Afghanistan, will make it easier for them to overthrow the government in Kabul. In fact, the Taliban may not show any interest in signing a peace deal because they believe they are winning and it goes against their guiding principle — no foreign forces in Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, the Taliban described this deal as a “victory” on social media and reportedly told their members that they could break this pact at will.

Finally, is the government in Kabul prepared to negotiate with the Taliban? Its position is fragile. President Ashraf Ghani was recently re-elected with a vote share a point more than 50 per cent. The result was challenged by his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who gathered around 39 per cent of the votes, but chose to declare himself the victor. Amidst controversies over alleged meddling with democratic systems in Afghanistan, the Taliban rejects the presence of any government in Kabul and claims to be the nation’s sole political leader.

Opinion | Islamabad is unlikely to benefit from US-Taliban pact

The peace deal implies that intra-Afghan dialogues will determine the distribution of power between the Taliban and Afghanistan government. However, the feasibility of such an arrangement is doubtful. First, there is no structure at present to govern a distribution of power between the two entities. Second, the arrangement could turn out for the worse — the greed to grab more power has remained a matter of political debate and fuelled illegitimate practices throughout history. Third, can such a distribution of power even take place if the parties refuse to acknowledge each other? Already, Ghani has denied that his administration had agreed to free 5,000 prisoners.

What does the US withdrawal from Afghanistan mean for India? In the long run, if the Taliban are back in Kabul, India’s infrastructure investments in Afghanistan will be at the risk of being seized. Besides, New Delhi will lose a friendly government in Kabul. Worse, Islamabad’s close partners may be in office once again. In the short run, India may be forced to get more involved in the Afghan affairs, precisely to preventing such developments. And the Americans may put pressure on India to intervene. Trump said that it is “time for someone else to do that work (fighting terrorists) and it will be the Taliban and it could be surrounding countries”. The deal does not end a war; it puts the onus of ending the bloodshed on Asian forces. Should the Taliban adopt a radical approach to establish power, militancy may rise on Indian borders, which may be further fuelled by Pakistan. India’s access to Central Asian markets may be curtailed and India’s infrastructure in Afghanistan may also be compromised. This peace deal also compromises India’s priority in Afghanistan — to deny the return of the Taliban to office. Last, Indian assets in Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries such as the Chabahar port may become redundant.

Explained | Reading the US-Taliban pact

While Trump’s statements to get neighbouring countries involved in resolving the situation in Afghanistan does have implications for India, what is surprising is New Delhi’s silence on the issue. One of the reasons for it — besides India’s reluctance to intervene militarily outside its borders — may be the American attitude itself. Trump, a few days after appearing as India’s great friend, is making its life more complicated. The US exit from Afghanistan is going to modify the politics of South Asia, especially since the US has used Pakistan as the launchpad to work out the peace deal with Taliban. This may elevate Pakistan’s importance within the region in the eyes of Washington, as evident from the US re-initiating the training of Pakistan’s military. If a new US-Pakistan rapprochement is taking place in the context of Trump’s Afghan policy, the implications would be more than regional for India.

India may remain silent, fully confident that the US will not be able to leave Afghanistan. Indeed, the dialogue of the deaf between Kabul and the Taliban may not go anywhere. That’s why President Trump warned: “If bad things happen”, he said, “we’ll go back with a force like no one’s ever seen.”

Editorial | An uneasy pact: As curtains fall on moderate political order in Kabul, Delhi must prepare for turbulence ahead

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 13, 2020 under the title: ‘It’s not a peace deal’. Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris and professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute and Jumle is an associate at Ikigai Law, New Delhi.

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