Given that 50 days separate President Donald Trump from a difficult re-election bid on November 3, his zeal to show a few foreign policy successes is understandable. In recent days, US foreign policy sherpas have made tangible progress in bringing together the Afghan government and the Taliban on the same negotiating table in Doha, Qatar, in pursuit of an elusive peace accord.
Till a couple of weeks ago, the Taliban, who rule much of the countryside at the tip of the sword, did not recognise the de jure regime in Kabul. The Afghan accord is being pushed by the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad with an eye on the US election. Trump needs to show his much-wonted deal-making prowess. Though it had progressed at a snail’s pace for several months, the on-now, off-now process gained momentum in recent weeks, given the US’s urgency to clinch some sort of a deal. The likely peace agreement between Afghanistan’s elected regime and the Taliban is to be underwritten by the Americans --- as and when finalised. The peace process is underway more because of the US urgency to pull out of Afghanistan than an inclination on the part of the Taliban.
The Taliban did not even agree on a complete ceasefire before the Doha talks, merely agreeing to reduce violence. When they will abjure violence and shed arms to return to the path of civilian democratic rule is unclear. Several hundred hardcore Taliban fighters were released from prison as part of the conditions they had set to agree to sit with the elected rulers in Kabul. The final touches to the peace accord remain to be completed, but the US administration has announced the pullout of 2,000 American soldiers, to allow Trump to claim that he has fulfilled the 2016 election promise to 'bring back the boys home’.
Since the coalition forces first launched the operations against the then Taliban regime following the 9/11 assault on the twin towers in 2001, more than 2,000 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan. At the end of the multi-national coalition mission in 2014, the US maintained a small military contingent in the troubled state to bolster the Kabul regime. Should the US pull out, it is anyone’s guess how long it will take for the Taliban to overrun the civilian government and grab power with the use of force. The extremist jihadi group believes in an antediluvian version of Islam, in which women have no role outside home, nor are they allowed to get any schooling and are treated as vastly inferior to men. Pakistan, whose services the US enlisted to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, is their chief patron. India has reason to be wary of the unfolding events in Afghanistan.
Whatever the spin put on the peace process, there is no denying the very serious threat of Afghanistan under the Taliban becoming a haven for jihadis to launch terror attacks in Kashmir and elsewhere in this country. Of late, even China has discovered Afghanistan, keen to buy influence in the dirt-poor land with its billions in aid which, as per Chinese practice, would be exchanged for parcels of land, minerals and other valuable strategic assets. In short, India will have a renewed headache in Afghanistan despite the billions it has poured in developmental aid to build schools, roads, hospitals, etc.
The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad was in New Delhi en route to the US on his way back from Doha, to reassure India. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar virtually addressed the Doha meeting of the Taliban-Afghan Government representatives last week, in a bid by Khalilzad to try and boost confidence in the peace process and get India on board. India cannot be a naysayer, though it has good reason to be wary of the return of the Taliban to Kabul with the blessings of Washington.
The American desperation to leave Afghanistan was a big handicap exploited by the Taliban to virtually dictate terms in Doha. At this rate, the Americans could have left anytime before, without making any difference to the actual conditions on the ground in the god-forsaken country. It is certain to pass under the control of the Taliban-armed brigands controlled by the ISI sooner than later, once the Americans leave.