The Joseph Biden administration declared on 23rd January, 2021, within a few days of coming to power that it will reassess the agreement reached by Donald Trump with the Taliban in February 2020. It stated that the US proposed to review whether the militant group was abiding by the terms of the agreement including the provisions pertaining to reduction in the extent of violence and also substantive engagement in dialogue with the Kabul government. This decision was communicated by the recently appointed US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, during a telephonic conversation with his Afghan counterpart, Hamdullah Mohib.
By Ashok Sajjanhar
As part of the deal signed between the US government and the Taliban, the former had committed to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan within a period of fourteen months i.e. by May 2021. In exchange, the Taliban would break off all links with the Al Qaeda, and commit not to launch attacks on US interests and its allies. The Taliban further pledged to participate in an intra-Afghan dialogue with the Kabul government aimed at bringing about “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.”
The Trump administration had at that time stated that the agreement was ‘’conditions-based’’ and that appropriate measures would be adopted to protect its interests if the Taliban did not stand by its assurances. The deal was considered to be a significant attempt by the Trump administration to implement its 2016 promise made during the election campaign to bring back US troops from the ‘’never-ending war’’ in Afghanistan.
Trump had unveiled an expansive and far-reaching strategy for South Asia in August 2017. As part of this initiative, US troop presence was to be reinforced by an additional 4,000 troops in Afghanistan. The game-plan called for ramping up pressure on Pakistan to take firm action against terrorists stationed in and operating from its territory. Trump also called on India to actively collaborate in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.
Trump’s first tweet of 2018 on 1st January censured Pakistan for providing safe havens to terrorists who worked against US personnel and interests in Afghanistan and denounced Islamabad with “lies and deceit”. The US stopped providing financial resources under the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) to Pakistan.
This strategy didn’t yield the expected results and Trump soon realised that to get the Taliban to the negotiating table, he would have to go through their patrons, the Pakistan government and the Pakistan Army. Former diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad was appointed to serve as US Special Envoy for Afghanistan in September 2018, with the mandate to reach an agreement with the Taliban within six months.
Khalilzad delivered on his mandate with the agreement with the Taliban reached at Doha, Qatar on 29th February, 2020. According to this arrangement, the US promised to withdraw its 12,000 troops within fourteen months from Afghanistan. Nearly 10,000 troops have been withdrawn since then. There are currently only about 2,500 American troops left in the country, while the total number of NATO forces is about 10,000.
While the plan was welcomed by many in the US as they were happy to see a light at the end of the tunnel, many others expressed unhappiness and dubbed it as a ‘Withdrawal Plan’ rather than a ‘Peace Deal.’ They considered it to be hugely tilted in favour of the Taliban. The critics arraigned the terms of the deal as being unreasonably accommodating of the interests of the militants. That wariness and discomfort has transformed into an expanding refrain of gloom and pessimism as the Taliban re-intensified attacks and killings across the country in subsequent months.
Although it would appear that the Taliban has significantly reduced attacks on international forces including the US troops as part of the deal, it continues to challenge and attack the Afghan government. As a condition of starting talks with the Afghan government, the Taliban demanded that thousands of their members who were housed in Afghan prisons be released in prisoner swaps. After some wrangling, this was accomplished and direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban were launched in Doha, Qatar in September, 2020.
The Taliban and Afghan government have as yet not been able to achieve a breakthrough in their bilateral talks. Levels of violence in Afghanistan continue to be extremely high with journalists, activists, politicians and women judges among those killed in targeted assassinations. Taliban claims that these attacks are not perpetrated by it but by the ISIS forces against whom it is also battling.
The US intelligence agencies assert that notwithstanding its rejection of the charge, the Taliban continues to retain active links with Al Qaeda and is responsible for a spate of recent killings. The Pentagon spokesperson has declared that if the Taliban does not forsake terrorism and abjure launching deadly assaults against Afghan national security forces, it would be difficult to identify a concrete path ahead towards a negotiated settlement. The Pentagon however maintains that the US is still bound by its commitment under the Doha Deal.
Senior NATO officials have in recent days claimed that the final withdrawal of US and ISAF forces will not take place by May 2021 as the ‘’conditions have not been met.’’
The declaration by the US to review the February 2020 agreement with the Taliban appears to have come as a shot in the arm for the beleaguered Ashraf Ghani government. The ‘Peace Deal’ is seen by many in Afghanistan as having given too many concessions to the Taliban. It needs to be recognized that Biden has long been suspicious and unconvinced of the US military presence in Afghanistan and had said last year that the US would not be responsible if the Taliban came to power after the departure of the US troops.
Biden and his team are conscious that Americans want to get out of this ‘never-ending war’ after suffering more than 2,000 casualties and expending US$1.5 trillion on the war over the past two decades. The US is however also cognizant of the fact that it would not like to leave in a hurry which would threaten American security interests.
The Biden administration can hence be expected to increase pressure on the Taliban as well as on Pakistan to significantly tamp down on the levels of violence in Afghanistan. It would also compel them to negotiate seriously and sincerely with the Afghan government to conclude a permanent ceasefire and a mutually acceptable and balanced power-sharing arrangement.
It is highly likely that US will see its role in Afghanistan as part of a broader NATO effort. The Biden team, which is eager to rebuild America’s alliances and assert its leadership, will handle the issue multilaterally. This would have the advantage that US will not be acting alone and would be able to bring the whole weight of NATO and regional powers in Central Asia, India and others to bear on the Taliban and Pakistan.
The other advantage with the Biden government is that it does not have to worry about any impending elections, like Trump did when he concluded the February 2020 deal with the Taliban. Biden can afford to take his time to ensure that peace and security is established in Afghanistan, and the gains of the last 20 years like minority and women’s rights, education of girls etc. are preserved before the US troops leave.
It is a matter of relief and satisfaction for India that the Biden administration is reviewing the decision for US troops to leave Afghanistan by May 2021. While India has always advocated an Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled and Afghan-owned peace process, it has also been wary of the handover of the government to the Taliban. A Taliban-led government in Kabul would signify a considerable rise in influence and clout of the Pakistan establishment, the Pakistan army and the ISI, and significantly enhance the threats of terrorist attacks against India from Pakistan as well as by the Taliban forces from Afghanistan.
India would do well to continue to maintain an active and robust contact with the Ghani government as well as withthe other main interlocutors and stake-holders in Afghanistan. India has invested heavily in Afghanistan not only financially but also politically and strategically, for advancing its security interests. The multi-faceted strength of this partnership was visible at the Modi-Ghani virtual Summit on 9th February, 2021 when the important US$ 250 million agreement was signed under which India would construct the Shatoot (Lalandar) dam in Afghanistan which, in addition to providing drinking water to 2 million people in Kabul, will also irrigate 10,000 hectares of agricultural land.
India should establish an active dialogue with Biden’s team so that its interests of maintaining peace, tranquility and stability in Afghanistan are safeguarded and further enhanced.
India should enhance its interactions with Afghanistan’s neighbours including in Central Asia, Iran and Russia so that a joint and comprehensive plan of action is devised which would bring a peaceful and prosperous future to the people of Afghanistan.
The decision by the Biden administration to review the Afghan peace deal is a welcome move and bodes well for the future of peace and security in the country. India needs to take full advantage of this opportunity so that the final outcome is beneficial to Afghanistan and its people, and ensures peace and stability in the region.
This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them. The author is a research associate with VIF.