The Biden review of the Trump Administration’s Afghanistan peace process has set the cat among the pigeons. It is a bold and courageous new blueprint for kickstarting the stalled reconciliation process. The different elements of the revised peace plan are not new but have been refined to make a fresh start. The four draft peace agreements are contained in letters addressed by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban — first to establish an interim government with the Taliban on board; second, working out a new Constitution and state structure to hold elections. Three, two parallel processes: one in which to involve regional players under the UN and the other for Turkey to mediate the difficult but vital 90-day period of reduced violence to dovetail the ingredients of the peace agreement. Forty-five days are left for the final troop withdrawal by May 1. What is striking about the Biden-Blinken plan is the complete lack of consultation with Kabul, where the government has been stunned.
What was expected from Biden was not a reframed peace process, but a request from the US for an extension of the May 1 deadline for six months, realigning conditions for withdrawal with quantifiable measurements to gauge reduction in violence in order to accelerate the ceasefire. The fundamental ingredient of the old plan was the interdependence of US troop withdrawal with the Taliban simply talking to Kabul. 2,500 US troops were brought back by January 15 which was related to Trump’s re-election. It is not clear what will happen to the previously agreed elements of what is now called the Doha process. Already too much is said to have been given away to the Taliban for too little in return. Bringing them now into a transitional government is providing the Taliban with a head-start.
Blinken’s letters handed over by US Special Envoy and interlocutor, Zalmay Khalilzad, are not being officially owned by the US State Department and, therefore, could be a tester for all sides. The letter has warned Kabul that if a peace agreement was not in place soon, the Taliban may be in a position to make rapid territorial gains. This is obviously pressure on Kabul to accept the plan as in the past, US military inspectors in Afghanistan have rated high to very high the capability of Afghan security forces to independently deal with the Taliban.
Giving Turkey a key role in hammering out the peace agreement by creating conditions for a 90-day reduction in violence appears to be the most eye-catching. Lately, the US had kept Turkey, once a central player in Afghanistan, on the margins and its return signifies the revival of the Istanbul process over the ongoing Doha process. It takes the spotlight away from Pakistan though no two countries are more allied and strategic than Turkey and Pakistan. It also minimises the centrality of Zalmay Khalilzad, a US Pashtun who has been accused of being soft on the Taliban, though his ideological dislike of the Taliban was never a secret. Blinken has asked Ghani or his nominee, probably Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Level Peace Council, to attend the new Istanbul peace process.
Asking the UN to form a new regional forum on Afghanistan consisting of India, Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and the US is pretty innovative. First, it brings the UN directly into the peace process, gives the plan a regional face and visualises a ‘unified approach’ towards Afghanistan. Interestingly, all the countries in the regional forum, except the US, are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and could create a mechanism under the SCO to monitor developments in Afghanistan. The other striking feature of the forum is India’s inclusion as New Delhi has never been (except once, as observer) in regional talks which have been usually organised under Russian, Chinese or US leadership. This will certainly not please Islamabad, but acknowledges New Delhi’s steadfast role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Russia has called for a meeting between the two sides on Afghanistan at Moscow on March 18.
As the convener and member of Track II regional initiative on Afghanistan’s ‘Region 2014 and Beyond: Perspectives and strategies for constructive conflict resolution for the neighbourhood’, our regional group travelled to Turkey, Central Asia, reaching the White House National Security Council and the United Nations in New York with recommendations on regional peace and stability in 2015-16. This is the first time that the UN will be exploring Afghanistan’s neighbourhood for peace and stability and may be consider even a regional peacekeeping force if and when the time comes, as was envisioned by our group.
Kabul, not unfamiliar with incendiary explosions, appears shell-shocked with Blinken’s missive. Barely adjusted to the Trump plan, the Biden-Blinken plan will take time to sink in. The outspoken Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, the former intelligence czar of Afghanistan, has warned that there could be no compromise on the Constitution and electoral rights of the people to choose a new government. This ultimate act on the part of the US makes a mockery of any reference to the Afghanistan peace process as Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and Afghan-driven.
India has supported Afghanistan through thick and thin. To its credit or otherwise, it has never wholeheartedly subscribed to the idea of reconciliation with the Taliban or having any truck with them. Although it was on board the Trump peace plan, it has neither recognised the Taliban nor opened lines with it. The Blinken request for India’s Foreign Minister
S Jaishankar to join the regional forum on Afghanistan is a recognition of its sterling contribution.
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