March 08, 2020

Afghanistan: Unilateral Retreat by US

THE agreement to bring peace to Afghanistan signed by the United States and the Taliban at Doha represents nothing but a unilateral retreat by the United States from Afghanistan.  After invading Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban regime in October 2001, for 19 years, the United States and its NATO allies were engaged in the fruitless pursuit of subjugating the Taliban.

Under President Obama, American troops were reduced to 8,400 and efforts made to equip the Afghan army to counter the Taliban forces. The civil war, which has been going on for the past few years, led to no success. At present, over half of the territory is under Taliban control.  President Ashraf Ghani’s government is weak and internally divided.   

President Trump had promised during the last election campaign to end all useless wars and to bring the troops back home. With the elections drawing near in November, the Trump administration has sought to show that the troops will be returning home soon. 

As per the agreement, the United States is to withdraw 5,000 troops to bring its strength down from around 14,000 to 8,400 in 135 days. If everything goes according to plan, all US and allied troops would be withdrawn in 14 months. 

The Taliban, in turn, is expected to not harbor Al Qaeda groups, or, IS and such forces that can endanger US national security.  The agreement does not even include a ceasefire. There was only a week’s reduction of hostilities before the agreement was signed. 

The agreement further envisages the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government and the exchange of prisoners with the Taliban (who hold 1,000 Afghan army men) is to take place on March 10. The United States has further committed to withdraw sanctions against individual Taliban leaders and defreeze their assets as the agreement proceeds to be implemented.

March 10 is also the date set for the “intra-Afghan” negotiations to begin. The Taliban is supposed to speak to all sides to arrive at some understanding about the future set-up in the country.

The agreement has come about after protracted talks in Doha, Qatar between the US and Taliban negotiators.  At no time was the Afghan government a party to the talks since the Taliban had refused to recognise or sit with the Kabul government. 

The Doha agreement is so structured as to facilitate a Taliban takeover. Since the agreement does not provide for a ceasefire, immediately after the week of reduction of hostilities was over, the Taliban has resumed its armed activities. There were 33 attacks in 16 provinces in 24 hours after the agreement was signed.  President Ghani has announced that he is not bound to release the Taliban prisoners in government custody by March 10. This, in turn, has been denounced by the Taliban who have stepped up their attacks. In such a situation, the vague promise of talks between the Taliban and its political opponents seems unlikely to materialise. 

There is talk about some secret clauses to the agreement.  The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is expected to brief US Congressional leaders about these secret terms.  One of these clauses is purported to be the maintenance of some special American forces in the country. Whatever such clauses may contain, it is evident that the United States will have to take a call soon – whether to stick to the timetable of withdrawal of its forces and sacrifice the Kabul government or backtrack in the face of a resurgent Taliban and retain its military presence.

For the Afghan people, the future is bleak – renewed civil war and a Taliban takeover.

The Modi government was faced with a fait accompli when the Doha agreement was announced.  The United States has not bothered with Indian sensitivities in the matter. Trump came on his visit to India after the agreement had been reached. It was only left for Trump to tell Modi that the United States would be getting out of Afghanistan and cutting its losses.

The foreign secretary was dispatched to Kabul to declare India’s support for the beleaguered government – a symbolic act without substance.  With Pakistan back in the driving seat in Afghan affairs, India is now landed with an unenviable situation of having to face a recrudescence of Islamist extremism in the region. That this is happening under the deep strategic embrace of the United States is a telling commentary on the utility of the much vaunted Indo-US strategic partnership. 
(March 4, 2020)