President Trump has finally decided to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan. He has disagreed with the views of some of his generals and strategic advisors, and plans to move out of the 18-year Afghan war. Washington Post has reported that America will reduce the troops from the current strength of 14,000 to 8,000. In exchange of this troop-cut, Taliban will sever connections with the Al-Qaida and other international terror groups and also enter into peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
There are fears that Trump could even go to the extent of abrupt withdrawal of troops, and leave the country at the mercy of the Taliban. No wonder his decision to withdraw troops has evoked critical comments from generals and strategic experts. They fear that precipitous withdrawal will have disastrous consequences. There will be chaos in Afghanistan, and the country might irretrievably slide towards a civil war. America’s ninth round of peace negotiations with the Taliban were held in Doha. The US team of negotiators was led by the UN special representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, an American diplomat who had served as US Ambassador to the United Nations and Afghanistan.
Taliban is being represented by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradari, who was released last year from a Pakistan prison. The unfortunate point is that the Afghan government has so far been kept away from discussions because Taliban considers it to be a puppet regime. It feels that discussions with the Ghani government will lend it a measure of legitimacy. and this is unacceptable to the militants. Initially, America tried to persuade the Taliban to involve the Afghan government in the negotiations, but in view of their dogged refusal, America had to agree to the negotiations despite the absence of the Afghan government. President Trump is of the view that important regional powers must come forward to create a viable Afghanistan, rather than America which is six thousand miles away.
He has also criticized India for building libraries in Afghanistan, without providing troops on the ground. The ground situation in Afghanistan is grim and deteriorating fast. The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since the United States bombed them out of Afghanistan in 2001. The US Force in Afghanistan now simply carries out counter-terrorism operations. Trump has conceded that US military role in Afghanistan has been reduced to that of a “ridiculous police role.” In an article in Foreign Affairs, titled “Lessons from Vietnam in leaving Afghanistan” George G. Herring has compared the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan to that from Vietnam in 1973.
The Afghan army, like its South Vietnamese counterpart, depends mainly on US military and financial support. The operating budget of the Afghan National Security Force is around $6.5 billion, which is more than the entire federal expenditure of Afghanistan. Most of the money comes from the United States. Unlike the Vietnam war, so far there has been no serious domestic opposition to the deployment of American troops in Afghanistan. The major push for extrication has come from President Trump himself. Previously, he had decided to withdraw troops regardless of the consequences. He has now clarified that all troops will not be withdrawn, and about 6000 US soldiers will remain in Afghanistan to tide over in any crisis.
The sticking point in the peace negotiations is that America seeks guarantees from the Taliban that terrorist groups, notably the Al-Qaida and ISIS will not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a base for attacking American interests in different parts of the world. However, there is no guarantee that Taliban will honour the pledge, and it will not be practicable for America to re-deploy its troops. America can of course attack terrorist bases with bombs and missiles, as it is doing now in Syria. During the peace negotiations, Taliban insisted that it will not make any commitment unless America declares the withdrawal timeframe and the technicalities. The Taliban is aware that time is on their side in view of America’s keenness to withdraw.
The Taliban is equally anxious to expand its territorial control in order to exert pressure on the Afghan government by attempting to capture major cities, provincial capitals, and strategic highways. They want to speak from a position of strength. However, the path to peace in Afghanistan is going to be difficult and tortuous. There is a clear possibility that the Afghan government might refuse to play ball and get along. There is also the possibility of the Tajiks and Hazaras refusing to accept the deal, even if it is approved by the Afghan government. The situation will be complicated further still if the Taliban seeks to prevail militarily. Afghanistan will then hurtle towards a civil war with its attendant chaos and sufferings. There is also another looming danger.
The Islamic State, which is a sworn enemy of the Taliban, has established pockets of influence and control in different parts of Afghanistan. The ISIS may prove to be the spoiler. The rabid Taliban fighters, if they do not approve of the peace deal with America, may join the ISIS fighters. After its defeat in Syria and Iraq, ISIS had been urging its fighters to join the holy war in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s role in the peace negotiations is of considerable importance. America is hoping that Pakistan will be able to persuade Taliban leaders to enter negotiations with the Afghan government. This is crucial for the successful culmination of the peace talks. For achieving this objective, President Trump has given up the earlier posture of bullying, and has tried to cajole and humour Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan.
He has even offered to mediate in the Kashmir dispute. The Pakistan army has now given its ambition of ruling Afghanistan as a puppet state. Pakistan also fears that Taliban’s triumph will stoke Pashtun nationalism and Islamic radicalism, which will have a destabilizing impact on the country. But at the same time, it wants an Afghan government, which is not an ally of India, and not hostile to Pakistan. China also wants peace and stability in Afghanistan. It has established back-channel contacts with the Taliban. It wants peace in Afghanistan so that there are no unsettling repercussions as regards the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province of China. Developments in Afghanistan are ominous for India which has made a $3 billion investment in developing soft power in Afghanistan.
India will have to move cautiously, and atemmpt some sort of reconciliation with them to safeguard its interests. If Pakistan succeeds in installing a new Afghan government with some people, who are hostile to India, it will seriously jeopardize India’s interests and assets built up over the years.
(The writer is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences; former Director-General, National Human Rights Commission; and former Director, National Police Academy. He can be reached at [email protected])