Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
The Afghan Taliban perhaps played its cards a little too smartly and ended with a ‘no deal’ situation while attempting to negotiate with the Trump Administration on the withdrawal of US armed forces from Afghanistan. For a year and specifically over the last four months, we have been following the Taliban’s shenanigans while it played hard to get. It refused to agree to a ceasefire while the negotiations were being conducted with the presumption that absence of violence would give US negotiators a leg up while discussing the deal. It also refused to have anything to do with the Ashraf Ghani led Afghan national unity government, not allowing it any role in the negotiations. As a result violence has continued unabated in Afghanistan placing the government under severe pressure.
In practice, the recent draft agreement arrived at by Zalmay Khalilzad the US Special Adviser to Afghanistan, required the US forces to withdraw from five of their bases over 135 days during which they would not be targeted by the Taliban. It also had provisions such as the Taliban ending attacks on civilians and severing its ties with al Qaeda which again in practice is unlikely to happen. Per the draft there could yet be 9,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan throughout 2020, as compared to 14000 today. Would these be sufficient to protect the air bases, the embassy and be on call for emergent situations? Unlikely?
The initiation of the parleys with the Taliban was more at the behest of the US since President Trump strongly felt that his chances of a second term would get a decided boost if he managed to get maximum US soldiers home after an eighteen year deployment in a bloody overseas asymmetric war. The war has drained US coffers, led to casualties among many American servicemen and women, created considerable stress among soldiers and achieved very little in physical terms except keeping the Taliban out of power. A Taliban team was to travel to the US for enlarged and detailed talks with the representatives of the State Department at the Presidential retreat at Camp David when a Taliban terror strike at Kabul left a US soldier dead along with 11 local civilians. It was apparently a Taliban strategy to place greater pressure on the US. As demonstration of capability the Taliban executed this act but it proved to be overkill. Even before that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had refused to endorse US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad’s draft deal because of the absence of any guarantees. The death of the US soldier gave President Trump reason to put his final stamp of rejection.
In reality even without the Taliban killing of the US soldier the deal was considered sufficiently dodgy for any acceptance. There is little content on guarantees for the security of the small rump strength of US forces. Very little is known about the nature of future government and the prospects relating to the nearly 200,000 strong Afghan National Army (ANA). That could only bring greater uncertainty with no distinct political advantage to Trump’s presidential campaign. In fact anything which could lead to a potentially dangerous situation for US soldiers left deployed would probably create far greater negative sentiment in the US electorate.
Where does this leave the situation in Afghanistan and the region? India, which had been craftily left out from all negotiations by its wily neighbour Pakistan, will be happy with the continued US presence which prevents uncertainty at a time when things are tense over Kashmir. Pakistan had received a tremendous boost to its strategic significance due it being the intermediary in the US-Taliban negotiations and for its known proximity to the Taliban’s top leadership. It is likely to suffer an image deflation, at least for some time. Having been under monitoring of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for its well-known involvement in international terror financing it was expecting a reprieve from potential strictures with US influence. As the November deadline of the final FATF decision approaches Pakistan will be under renewed pressure if there is no retrieval of the US-Taliban negotiation process. Pakistan may witness its fall from grace for the nth time and could enter the FATF black list.
With its economy in shambles and potentially on the lookout for more financial bail-out packages the FATF certified black status is not going to be helpful at all. Some aggressive diplomatic posturing is likely to ensue on the part of Pakistan. It’s well established lobbying apparatus will probably get into motion. The target of its projection will be India with J&K being the prime focus. Already a dossier on Pakistan’s perception of alleged Indian activity supporting terror on its soil has been prepared and handed over to India and information contained within is likely to be extensively touted internationally. As India prepares for its diplomatic offensive regarding its actions on J&K Pakistan too will redouble its efforts to paint India red. Simultaneously it will need to work on keeping itself relevant in the eyes of the Trump Administration on whom it depends extensively for its economic recovery which is not anywhere on the horizon. Balancing its Afghanistan commitment with activism on the J&K front is not going to be easy for Pakistan. That is where the danger is; of it doing something that has not been thought through as has happened so often in the past. India has to be watchful of that.
For India it is a temporary reprieve. US presence in optimum numbers in Afghanistan will ensure the continuation of the status quo there. Threats of potential employment of Afghan fighters by Pakistan to boost its offensive campaign in J&K, although far-fetched, are unlikely to materialize. Yet, India will have to review its Afghanistan policy to examine how it can play a role in sync with US interests. Demands for an Indian military role are likely to increase and must be resisted while keeping all other options open, including improving its relationship with the Taliban.
Is this the end of the road for the Trump administration’s ambitious intent of drawing electoral advantage for next year’s presidential campaign through a sizeable reduction in military presence in Afghanistan? Will the US risk another surge and pull out the stops from a potential return to militarily engage the Taliban? These are questions yet difficult to answer. However, Afghanistan may shortly witness enhanced levels of violence with greater US involvement in support of the ANA. The Taliban has sufficient stamina and no deadlines such as electoral considerations. The ensuing situation is only likely to add to greater uncertainty, more complexity and undoubtedly many more bouts of violence.
Under agreement with Swarajya.com
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)