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US, Taliban sign deal, NATO to exit Afghanistan in 14 months

Mullah Baradar thanks Pakistan and China, does not mention India

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | March 1, 2020 4:41:30 am
US, Taliban sign peace accord aimed at ending 18 years of conflict in Afghanistan US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group’s top political leader sign a peace agreement between Taliban and US officials in Doha, Qatar. (AP)

At a ceremony in Qatar that was also attended by an Indian diplomat, the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban on Saturday, agreeing to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan in the next 14 months. The deal to end 19 years of war is, however, fraught with risks and uncertainties, and poses many questions on the way forward.

The pact for “bringing peace to Afghanistan” was signed by Zalmay Khalilzad, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the political head of the Taliban, at the Sheraton hotel in Doha.

In the audience was India’s Ambassador to Qatar, P Kumaran, who attended the ceremony along with US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo and a 31-member Taliban delegation.

As had been expected, Mullah Baradar especially named Pakistan for its assistance, and also thanked China, Iran, and Russia for supporting the peace process in Afghanistan. Also expectedly, he did not name India.

US, Taliban sign peace accord aimed at ending 18 years of conflict in Afghanistan US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, right, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, speak during a joint news conference in presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday. (AP)

According to the joint declaration, the US and its allies will withdraw all their forces from Afghanistan within 14 months. After an initial reduction of troops to 8,600 within 135 days of Saturday’s signing, the US and its partners “will complete the withdrawal of their remaining forces from Afghanistan within 14 months… and will withdraw all their forces from remaining bases”, the declaration stated.

READ | A timeline of key events in Afghanistan’s 40 years of wars

The declaration said that Afghanistan reaffirms its commitment to prevent any “international terrorist groups or individuals”, including al-Qaeda and ISIS-K, from using Afghan soil to threaten the US, its allies, and other countries.

There was no specific mention of Pakistan-based terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Muhammad.


Future is uncertain

The deal has come after difficult negotiations, and its future is uncertain. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla went to Kabul on Friday, and India will be closely watching the next moves by the Taliban, as well as the proposed intra-Afghan dialogue. With the US set to retreat, and Pakistan in a strong position, India has its task cut out.

The four-page agreement is between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan “which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban”, and the United States of America. The government of Afghanistan had been kept out of the talks, and is not a party to the agreement.

ALSO READ | Afghanistan: 100,000 civilian casualties over last decade — UN

In its response to the agreement, the Indian government said it would continue to extend all support to the government and the people of Afghanistan in realising their aspirations for a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future where the interests of all sections of Afghan society are protected.

The Ministry of External Affairs official spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said, “India’s consistent policy is to support 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.”

He said: “We note that the entire political spectrum in Afghanistan, including the Government, the democratic polity and civil society, has welcomed the opportunity and hope for peace and stability generated by these agreements.

“As a contiguous neighbour, India will continue to extend all support to the Government and people of Afghanistan in realising their aspirations for a peaceful, democratic and prosperous future where the interest of all sections of Afghan society are protected.”

President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah are not on the same page over the outcome of the Afghan elections, and the rivalry within the government will be playing out in the weeks and months to come.

As the US enters the retreat mode in Afghanistan, New Delhi will have to work with all political, state, and non-state actors to secure its interests.

Pompeo called it a “momentous day”, given that the US and the Taliban have had decades of hostility and mistrust. He acknowledged that past attempts at peace had “faltered”, and said that they had come to the conclusion that military victory was “impossible”.

In his brief statement, the Secretary of State laid out the conditions of the deal to the Taliban, asking them to cut ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, keep fighting the ISIS, sit down with other groups in Afghanistan in negotiations, and exercise patience.

He also urged them to “honour the diversity” of Afghanistan which, he said, had not always been done by past governments. “The Afghanistan of 2020 is not the Afghanistan of 2001,” Pompeo said.

Mullah Baradar said the agreement was “good for the international community”, and “we are committed to this agreement to enforce it.”

“We want to go on as a political force, to maintain (relations) with neighbours, regional countries, and the international community; we want a positive relationship with all,” Baradar said.

Baradar, a deputy of Mullah Omar, is a co-founder of the Taliban movement, and had been captured by Pakistan’s ISI and the CIA. He was released in 2018.

“We have suffered tremendously,” Baradar said. “And I hope that after the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan, the Afghan nation, under the Islamic regime, will embark on a new prosperous life.

“We all want to be attentive to the unity and prosperity of our country. For this reason, I call on all Afghan factions to come to negotiations honestly and sincerely for the establishment of a strong Islamic system.”

In the end, he thanked “Pakistan” for their assistance and for their “work”. He also thanked China, Uzbekistan, Iran, Russia, Indonesia, Norway, and other countries who supported the peace process. He concluded by expressing hope that all of them would participate in the rebuilding and future of Afghanistan.

The agreement is a result of President Donald Trump’s campaign promise of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, and marathon negotiations that began in 2018.

In Kabul, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani said that they have the capacity to have peace because of their “resilience”. US Defence Secretary Mark Esper and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg were in Kabul.

This came on a day when India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla met former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and India signed two deals to build roads in Afghanistan.

Shringla met Acting Finance Minister Abdul Habib Zadran and Deputy Minister of Transport Mohammad Zekria, and witnessed the signing of agreements for road projects in the Bamyan and Mazar-e-Sharif provinces with Indian development assistance.

In his meeting with Karzai, Shringla recalled the former Afghan President’s visit to India in January this year, and appreciated his contributions to the strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan. Karzai thanked India for its development partnership; the ongoing peace process and developments in Afghanistan were also discussed.

Shringla told President Ghani that India stands with Afghanistan for “strengthening national unity, territorial integrity, democracy, plurality and prosperity” in the country and bringing an “end to externally sponsored terrorism”.

Besides Ghani, the Foreign Secretary also met Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, First Vice President-elect Amrullah Saleh, Acting Foreign Minister Haroon Chakhansuri, and National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib.

“India remains committed to economic and human resource development partnership with Afghanistan,” MEA spokesperson Kumar said.

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