Updated: March 10, 2021 8:55:57 am
With a few tweaks to the Trump Administration’s Afghanistan policy, the Biden Administration in the United States has signalled both continuity and change. Like former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden wants to turn the page on America’s ill-fated 20-year-long excursion in Afghanistan. May 1 is the date for withdrawal of US troops. But unlike the Trump Administration, which was willing to throw the government in Kabul under the bus for a deal with the Taliban, the message from the new draft proposals drawn up by the Biden team to “jump start” the Afghan process is that it is willing to hold the government’s hand at least part of the way. The draft proposals, which have found their way to the Afghan media, talk about “guiding principles for Afghanistan’s future”, the contours of an interim government and a political roadmap. A 90-day immediate ceasefire plus a long lasting “comprehensive” ceasefire are also part of the plan. The Trump Administration had brought the Taliban and delegates of the Afghan Republic to the table at Doha and left the rest to them. But the “intra-Afghan talks” that began last September could not get off the ground as the violence and killings did not abate. The Biden Administration’s approach is now clear. The authoritative “take it or leave it” tone of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s letter addressed to President Ashraf Ghani — also in the Afghan media — is suggestive of as much impatience with the Kabul government as the readiness to turn the screws on the Taliban. Much about the last process revolved around the personality of Trump’s Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad. The State Department, which he had cut out of the process earlier, will lead the Biden push for peace.
As of now, uncertainties of the previous process remain. The draft proposals have to be acceptable to the two sides in Afghanistan. There is no indication that the Taliban, which stood firm at Doha that there would be no ceasefire, will agree to one now, in the spring, which in Afghanistan is usually the season for a new offensive. The Taliban has made no official response yet to the proposals. Its benefactor, Pakistan, is silent too. The government in Kabul has offered no official comment. The draft political proposals and the “guiding principles” lay down that the future must be built on the existing constitution but the word democracy does not figure anywhere.
From Delhi’s point of view, the Biden proposals are a huge shift. The US now wants all regional players — Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Iran and the United States — to discuss a “unified” approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan under UN auspices. Cut out by the Trump Administration and Pakistan, India had no role in the previous process, but was keen not to appear a spoiler, and had declared its support for an Afghan-led process and the talks at Doha. Finding common ground at the high table could prove to be challenging, as each country’s priority would be to safeguard its own interests. A lot will depend on Pakistan and India, and how their recent re-commitment to ceasefire at the LoC can contribute towards finding peace in Afghanistan.
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