BY MAJOR GENERAL (RETD) S.B. ASTHANA
After the recent release of over 80 hardcore Taliban prisoners, after the Loya Jirga assembled in Kabul gave the go-ahead for the release of the last of 400 Taliban prisoners, a temporary halt on the release of the remaining 320 prisoners is in effect, as a few more countries (France and Australia) shared the apprehensions of the Afghan government and public, that the prisoners in question had conducted serious violent attacks on Afghans and foreigners.
The release was part of a peace agreement signed between the Taliban and the US on February 29 this year to clear the last hurdle for the beginning of intra-Afghan talks, to give peace a chance in Afghanistan. A quick announcement of US withdrawal of another 4,000 troops, post Loya Jirga’s decision, indicated US fulfilment of its obligations as per the deal. The US may commend its Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the deal for allowing the US to withdraw its forces and end its longest-ever war, but the fact is that the Taliban controls more territory in Afghanistan now than at the time when the US entered the war, and the terror groups like al Qaeda, Islamic State (IS), Haqqani Network co-exist with Taliban, with an opportunity to bounce back, if not be adequately in control. The peace deal does not guarantee success of intra-Afghan dialogue; hence all stakeholders have to wait and see its progress with hope, as well as apprehension.
Has US created strategic space for others?
India, having made significant investments in Afghanistan, will always hope for an Afghan elected, Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process and a popular democratic government in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban continues to be a force to reckon with. The US-led invasion ousted the Taliban post September 11, 2001 attacks. After losing 2,400 US soldiers, tens of thousands of Afghan troops, Taliban fighters and Afghan civilians and spending more than $1 trillion, a war fatigue of 19 years for peace of another country, is enough reason to pull out. Besides, there was President Trump’s election promise to end the war. The Taliban’s assurance of not allowing the use of the Afghan soil for terrorism seems too good to be true; hence the US defense chief indicated that it will not hesitate to nullify the deal if the Taliban failed to hold its promises as per the deal.
The complete withdrawal of US forces will also amount to ceding the crucial strategic space to its competitors; hence the US has made adequate promise to help the Afghan government in combating the al-Qaeda/IS/Haqqani network to ensure that it does not become strong enough to strike its mainland again. The Afghan government had no choice but to go along with the deal due to lack of any leverage, as the Taliban refused to talk to them and the election results were not convincing enough to put them in the driver’s seat; hence the intra-Afghan dialogue, through this route, was the only workable option for them.
The Afghan National Security Forces still need much more capacity building to withstand inimical forces. It indirectly means that the US is considering some support to Afghan Forces, may be little air support and some troops, albeit in reduced strength to continue. Another compulsion of the US for such compromise could be to reduce some engagements of troops, as some more flash points are emerging for them in the dynamic international scenario post the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new peace spoilers
The Taliban and Pakistan’s promise to renounce support to al-Qaeda and fighting ISIS is unrealistic, because ISKP, AQIS and Haqqani network are already active, with no visible disturbance from the Taliban and continued support from Pakistan. The Taliban will continue to use violence as a leverage for a better bargaining position even in intra-Afghan talks. The recent attack by ISKP on the Afghan prison housing Taliban prisoners amongst many others, the earlier attack on a Sikh Gurdwara resulting in heavy casualties, and the new Pakistani leader from the Haqqani network joining ISKP, indicates close linkages of all the terrorist groups, including Pakistan-based terror groups. A weak Afghan government has resulted in the conglomeration of a variety of terror groups in Afghanistan who have their own agenda and, hence, can be spoilers of peace any time. The Taliban will not sit quiet unless it gains power. Even if its leaders put up a facade of giving reasonable governance if brought into the power structure, its cadres are unlikely to settle down without Sharia rule.
The Pakistan-Afghanistan border clash earlier this month along the Durand Line, which is apparently being unilaterally fenced, in the light of a weak Afghan government, could be a quick gain for Pakistan, but will remain a friction point in the long run as it divides Pashtuns. A strong Taliban suits Pakistan, as it helped in its survival and shrinks Indian space in Afghanistan. It may, however, have its own limitations as the Taliban did not make any concessions to Pakistan on the Durand Line, even when they were in power. The reconciliation of all factions within Afghanistan is also as difficult as change of behaviour of Taliban.
New concerns for India
The Chinese are keen to extend the BRI to Afghanistan to get an alternate axis to warm water in Gulf should the CPEC face problems, besides exploiting mineral wealth of Afghanistan. China has been actively involved with the Taliban during the peace process. Iran is economically weak and needs Chinese support. The China-Iran strategic partnership fructifying the $400 billion deal may be an impediment for Indian entry routes into Afghanistan through Chabahar and further connectivity to International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC), although Iran has not given any signals of disruption of these projects. From the Indian point of view, it may not be a happy situation in the light of its heavy investments. India is in touch with Russia, whose interests do converge with India’s in this region, being a stakeholder in INSTC for connectivity with CAR and Eurasia. INSTC, through Afghanistan, is the shortest route for CAR to warm water, hence they will prefer it over Sino-Pakistan offer of connectivity through CPEC.
India has to be watchful of the Iran-Pakistan-China axis developing in the neighbourhood of Afghanistan, with tentacles in the form of terror groups inside it. India has to be concerned about the growing strength and manoeuvring space of ISKP and AQIS, who have an agenda to increase their influence in the Indian subcontinent, although the Taliban has shown willingness to work with India and doesn’t seem to have an anti-India agenda as of now. Since 2001, India has undertaken projects worth $3 billion in Afghanistan. Besides engaging with all stakeholders, including the Taliban, a watch on anti-India nexus of terror groups in Afghanistan is in India’s national interest.
India needs to exercise some smart diplomacy to convince the US that Indian engagement with Iran is as much essential to prevent loss of crucial strategic space of Afghanistan to China, as much as token presence of US troops there. The US is committed to withdraw some troops, but it remains to be seen whether this peace deal will work, or the US pull back will leave behind a stronger Taliban, growing IS, emerging AQIS, suffering population of Afghanistan and new challenges for India.
(Maj Gen S.B. Asthana is a veteran infantry general and strategic analyst. The views expressed are personal and of the author, who retains the copyright. He can be reached at [email protected] and @asthana_shashi on twitter)