Maj-Gen Ashok K Mehta (retd)From comatose to ‘dead’ and reincarnated last week…that’s the quirkish trajectory of Afghanistan’s reconciliation and peace process, for many the extraction or extrication deal with the Taliban for withdrawal of US troops to end its longest war. Only President Trump could have revived a dialogue he declared dead in September after the loss of one single US soldier when more than 2,200 soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan. Still, like a magician, late last month, he told US troops in Kabul that the Taliban want to ‘make a deal’ and ‘do a ceasefire’, both claims economical with the truth. Had the deal been accomplished in September, there might have been no presidential elections whose results have been withheld indefinitely and an intra-Afghan dialogue held on September 23 in Oslo. Also, last week, at the United Nations General Assembly debate on Afghanistan, India’s Special Representative at the UN Vidisha Maitra emphasised that any solution in Afghanistan should have constitutional legitimacy, a political mandate and not leave any ungoverned space for terrorists and their proxies to exploit. The pointed remarks squarely targeted both the US and the Taliban, the primary players in any solution, even as the peace process is meant to be Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and Afghan-driven. The killing of a US soldier – who was a regional security officer – in Kabul, was the case of a targeted assassination by the Taliban caused by a security breach and intelligence tip-off. In other words, it could have been avoided. The resumption of the dialogue was contingent upon a prisoner swap in which Anas Haqqani, brother of the deputy leader of Taliban, Sirajuddin Haqqani, was released, and notably, has joined the talks team. Nine rounds of talks between the US interlocutor Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban were spread over 12 months and led to the ill-fated two-part Framework Agreement. Part one contained the procedure for the withdrawal of US troops – 5,000 soldiers would leave Afghanistan within five months (135 days) from five US bases and the remaining 10,000 troops in 14 months. In the second part, which was concurrent with the first, an agreement had been reached in principle for a ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue. The sticking point was the implementation of the second part, which would have triggered the troop withdrawal, though clarity on the sequencing and the modalities of the two interlinked phases will likely emerge from the resumed dialogue. Troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue and ceasefire or a reduction of violence are inter-connected segments of the Framework Agreement. President Ashraf Ghani has been ready to present his seven-point peace plan to the Taliban. Why did the September agreement get unstuck and the high-optics signing ceremony at Camp David called off? Key opponents of the September agreement were nine former US diplomats who had served in Afghanistan and who called the agreement ‘a surrender’, branding the US-Taliban negotiations as ‘How to avoid rushing into failure’. Further, the military was unhappy, too, as the Taliban objected to the US retaining five military bases and maintaining a residual 3,000 to 5,000 troops for intelligence-gathering and monitoring the agreement. Clearly, a new situation has arisen in Afghanistan, given Trump’s political imperative to withdraw sizeable US forces before the 2020 presidential elections. The US has failed to pacify the Taliban, abandoned the nation-building programme and belatedly realised that the Taliban cannot be militarily defeated without crossing into Pakistan. Khalilzad is expected to persuade the Taliban to accept a ceasefire which many of its constituents see as a sign of weakness. For some time now, with no military solution in sight, two options have been available: a peace deal, including power-sharing, or the deal failing again and the US unilaterally pulling out a bulk of its forces. Ensuing would be an unstable Afghanistan with intensified violence that will destabilise south and central Asian regions. It is the first option that the US is aiming for and one that will also be beneficial to Pakistan and its allies. New Delhi has to scan the contours of the emerging deal and situation in which the Taliban will become the lead player. India has failed to adapt to the changing scenario and shifted focus from economic assistance and development to political outreach, including engaging with the Taliban after consulting Kabul. Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan Vinay Kumar recently presented to acting Defence Minister Asadullah Khalid with the second pair of Mi24 helicopters as replacement for four helicopters given in 2015-16. India, which has trained the Afghanistan military for more than a decade, must intensify the scope and scale of military engagement to maintain its relevance. Trump and Modi enjoy excellent personal relations, but Trump will be entering an election year with an impeachment threatening his prospects. Pakistan’s likely pushback against the imposition of Article 370 in J&K will be in Islamabad securing the upper hand in Afghanistan, with the Taliban calling the shots in Kabul, though the Ghani establishment is internationally recognised as the legitimately elected government. Recently, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said India should not be prescriptive in Afghanistan. But that is precisely what India appeared to be doing in the UN debate on Afghanistan, though rightly rubbing in the point that the people of Afghanistan and their elected representatives should be allowed to decide their own future. The results of the Afghanistan presidential elections are on hold as Khalilzad hammers out a peace deal, enabling Trump to keep his election promise of withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan before he fights for his second term. During his recent trip to Kabul, Trump said the US would stay in Afghanistan ‘until such time as we have a deal or we have total victory’. Typical Trumpspeak!
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