India Rising Podcast: Collapse of Afghan Deal and its Implication
On September 8th US President Donald Trump announced through Twitter that peace talks with Taliban were off and that he was still thinking about a troop drawdown from Afghanistan.
A car bomb explosion on Sep 5th killed a U.S. service member and 10 civilians near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. As per some reports the American service member was the 4th one killed in the past two weeks in Afghanistan. Two days later on Sep 8th, US President Donald Trump tweeted “Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations.” This caused the collapse of the Afghan Deal being negotiated in Qatar between US & the Taliban.
On Monday Trump further said that “They (talks with the Taliban) are dead. As far as I’m concerned, they’re dead,” “We have hit the Taliban harder in the last four days than they have been hit in over 10 years. So that’s the way it is.” As for withdrawing some of the 14,000 US troops in the country, he said, “We’d like to get out but we’ll get out at the right time.”
Camp David is usually reserved for the high profile heads of state. Inviting Taliban that too on the eve of Sep 11 attacks planning for which originated inside Afghanistan was deemed inappropriate by many.
What were the details that were negotiated as part of this deal?
After being present in Afghanistan for almost 18 years. US President Trump wanted US to withdraw from Afghanistan. He needed an exit strategy where he wanted a structured withdrawal plus guarantees from Taliban to not harbor terrorists like Al Qaeda who could attack the US like they did on 9/11.
The negotiations on the US side were led by Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad who conducted 9 rounds of discussions with Taliban in Qatar with representatives from the Taliban who had opened an office there.
As per the deal once signed, US was to withdraw 5,400 troops from its 5 bases in Afghanistan in 135 days bringing down its strength there from 14,000 to just 8,600. During this timeframe Taliban pledged to not attack US service members during their withdrawal. Also In exchange for the U.S. drawdown, the Taliban promised to not allow any terrorist group to use Afghanistan soil under their control to plot operations against the United States or its allies. They were some promises on an intra Afghan dialogue to be held with the civilian government in Oslo, Norway for some sort of final political settlement.
Was this a good deal for USA & its allies?
Trump to fulfill his promise of getting out of Afghanistan before facing re-election in 2020. For this he wanted to get the troops home before US goes to the polls again next November.
Zalmay Khalilzad has been accused of giving away way too many concession to the Taliban without any firm guarantees in return. Sushant Sareen Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation in his recent piece points out “Khalilzad had embraced that view as far back as 1996 when he advocated US engagement with the Taliban regime, notwithstanding its atrocities and deep linkages with the al-Qaeda. The veteran diplomat had even accepted the Taliban’s false assertion that Osama bin Laden had left Afghanistan at face value.”
Some have called the deal front loaded in favor of Taliban where they can get what they want in a US withdrawal & then proceed to easily renege on their end of the deal.
The deal did have many other worrying points like not requiring Taliban to express regret for their past association with al-Qaeda, calling the democratically elected civilian government under current President Ashraf Ghani as a “puppet government” & not allowing them to participate in the negotiations with USA. They made some vague guarantees to an intra-Afghan dialogue between the civilian government & themselves.
The Taliban reportedly wanted the deal to be first announced in Doha while Trump would have liked it to be announced in Camp David which is where former US presidents have announced major peace deals in the past.
Once the deal was agreed upon current Afghanistan President Ghani was reported to have been shown a copy of the U.S.-Taliban deal which he could read over in an hour but shockingly was not even allowed to keep a copy of it.
What have been the reactions to the terms of the deal?
Ever since the details of the deal have been circulating on the media there has been growing opposition to it.
9 former US ambassadors to Afghanistan in an open letter warned against withdrawal from Afghanistan under the terms of this flawed deal.
Former critic & now friend of the President Trump Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham warned Trump saying “”Mr. President, if you don’t have a counter-terrorism force left behind, even if you’ve got to deal with the Taliban — which I doubt, but you might — they don’t have the capability or will to protect the American homeland,”
On top of this reports emerged that Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, had refused to endorse US negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad’s draft deal because of the absence of any concrete guarantees.
The death of the US soldier would have been the proverbial final straw that broke the camel’s back & gave President Trump reason to cancel the deal.
In 1975 (in then South Vietnam) US forces were hurriedly withdrawing with the last few helicopters flying out of Saigon before North Vietnamese advanced on the city. Even though Taliban does control large swathes of the country there is was no such immediate danger there i.e. there was no impending collapse of the civilian Ashraf Ghani government that the deal with Taliban had to be rushed through here. After all the Afghan national army consists of ~200k troops which is not an insignificant fighting force.
What are implications of the deal collapsing?
Trump has avoided a bad deal with Taliban that was unlikely to bring peace to Afghanistan.
In 2013 Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States from 2008-11 wrote in an op-ed “unlike most states or political groups, the Taliban aren’t amenable to a pragmatic deal. They are a movement with an extreme ideology and will not compromise easily on their deeply held beliefs”.
Taliban now free of any compulsions from adhering to any sort of deal will look to up the ante with even more deadlier attacks including on US forces. The Taliban strategy to place greater pressure on the US by attacking US forces before the deal was signed went awry as they overplayed their hand. Pompeo even remarked “Taliban overreached with this attack”.
Now both the US & Taliban are back to square one with this no deal. Things will probably heat up significantly before they sufficiently cool down for both sides to talk again. This is more of a pause in negotiations vs cancellation of these talks. US will resume contact after a while as they need to eventually exit Afghanistan to end their longest war in modern times. Since Trump has professed a desire to get out of Afghanistan they could be the ones to blink first. Taliban since 2001 has stated that they are fully prepared to wait it out no matter how long it takes. Having time on their side is their biggest ally as they know that US resolve to stay in Afghanistan will break at some point in the near future. There have been reports that intercepted communications from the Taliban high command reveal that the message was being sent down to the foot soldiers that US will leave in a years’ time.
Ashraf Ghani who has been side lined in this series of events has insisted that this month’s Presidential election be held on time. He seeks a second term and wants to negotiate with Taliban on settlement with them on the country’s political future.
As part of the intra Afghan dialogue between the current government & the Taliban talks were reportedly going to start on Sep 23rd just 5 days before the Sep 28th elections. The close proximity of the dialogue would have compromised the election process to an extent.
The upcoming elections would have been a just a temporary phase where new structures would have to be negotiated between both sides before any kind of reconciliation in the future.
Also there has been whispers that the Taliban negotiating team in Doha is not fully in sync with the Taliban leadership on the ground which might possibly explain the reasoning behind attacking US forces just days before the final talks to conclude the deal. Thus creates additional headache that any deal (even a diluted one) signed by the Taliban in Qatar might not be adhered to by the Taliban on the ground in Afghanistan.
How did other countries & global institutions respond to this?
The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, on Tuesday briefed the United Nations Security Council on the situation in the country and said the direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban must begin as soon as possible.
Taliban on its part has indicated that it would want to continue the peace talks with the United States. Taliban’s statement was “committed to continuing negotiations till the end if a political settlement is chosen instead of war”.
Russia which was having its own peace talks with the Taliban in parallel, welcomed Taliban’s stand. Russia’s official statement was “We hope that the current pause will not undermine the long-term efforts of the sides and the substantial progress achieved at the talks in Doha on a peace settlement in Afghanistan.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has clarified that negotiations with the Taliban are impossible without a ceasefire. He further claimed that the Afghan government facilitated conditions for peace, but the Taliban miscalculated and that Afghanistan will not be coerced. Ashraf Ghani now comes across as a man whose stand was vindicated. It was true that he was ready to hop on a plane on short notice with very few details to make something happen for his country. Now, it is obvious that the Afghan Presidential Elections will now proceed as planned on September 28 and that Ashraf Ghani is a clear front runner in the polls right now.
So what are strategic implications for India of this deal being not signed?
India will have to review its Afghanistan policy to examine how it can play a role in sync with US interests. Demands for an Indian military role are likely to increase and must be resisted while keeping all other options open, including improving its relationship with the Taliban.
The questions is that how can India engage more with other significant powers like Russia, China & Iran on this vexed issue of reconciliation in Afghanistan. India must use its leverage of good relations with not only these big nations but also with the Central Asian CIS (former Soviet Republics) all of whom share a land border with Afghanistan. All these states have a common interest in bringing peace across this region which has been elusive for decades. The downside from any flare up in Afghanistan has security implications for all its neighbours where there can be a spill over impact across their borders into the neighbouring states.
India doesn’t recognize Taliban officially since they grabbed power in the mid 1990’s. But since they will be a part of any future ruling dispensation in Kabul be it governing in a joint capacity with the current government or a hostile takeover of the country it makes sense to open a dialogue with them. There is not much to be lost in way of an informal dialogue or whatever you want to refer to it by name. After all if big powers like US, Russia & China have no hesitation talking to them, then there are no brownie points to be earned by standing on your principal of having no dialogue with them. It would better suit India’s interests to at least try to shape the future in your neighbourhood (even if your chances of influencing Taliban are remote)
Pakistan won’t have to worry about its western borders for the time being and hence can continue to cause problems for India on its eastern borders. Afghan fighters and mercenaries might not head to J&K immediately and that helps India gain a major reprieve albeit for a short duration of time.
It is not secret that the route to peace in Afghanistan is through Pakistan. World has to exert pressure on Pakistan to renounce its support for terror & exercise their influence on the Taliban to finally bring peace to this region which has been ravaged by decades of conflict. Whether Pakistan does change its behaviour in Afghanistan (which it considers it’s so called “strategic depth” against India) remains to be seen.
Note: This was originally discussed on Episode 21 of the India Rising podcast (@indiarisingmk) hosted by Mohal Joshi (@MohalJoshi) & Kishor Narayan (@veggiediplomat). (Below are links to the episode)