US pullout and the road ahead for Afghanistan

The Biden-Blinken plan envisages a transitional power-sharing government to replace the present one with a 21-member commission (10 from Taliban) to draft a new Constitution.The Doha process is to be revamped with Ankara hosting the conversations.A regional conference of stakeholders—on the lines of the Bonn conference in 2001 which the Taliban did not attend—is to be held with the US, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and India, along with the Taliban and other Afghan groups for a unified approach.

US pullout and the road ahead for Afghanistan

WAR-WEARY: The Taliban are being co-opted to bring stability in Afghanistan. Reuters

Maj Gen Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Military Commentator

A decade ago, doomsday scenarios were being painted over how American withdrawal from Afghanistan would lead to surplus Taliban being diverted to Kashmir and creating havoc. The pullout is happening from May 1, to be completed by September 11. At the Raisina Dialogue (April 16, 2021, New Delhi), Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib described the US withdrawal as a great opportunity for Afghans to take hold of their destiny. He said: “We don’t need US troops but we need US support,” presumably moral, material and financial. He emphasised that 90 per cent of all operations are being conducted independently by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The level of US support for the ANSF will be worked out by the Afghan and US transition teams.

Mohib added that the “Taliban narrative of victory: ‘we have won the war. Americans have lost. We are ready for peace. We are ready for Jihad’, smacks of arrogance. They have destroyed $900 million worth of infrastructure in Afghanistan.” He said he had spoken to his counterpart Ajit Doval that morning to discuss the new Biden-Blinken peace plan which is surrounded by uncertainty.

Mohib confirmed there was friction among the Taliban groups: Mullah Baradar who is leading the talks; Mullah Haibutallah Akhundzada, supremo of Taliban; Mullah Yaqub, son of Mullah Omar, the founder leader; Haqqani network and a group in Helmand but does not subscribe to the Quetta Shura. In the same session, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar declined to indicate whether India would engage the Taliban but stressed it supported the peace process which must be Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and Afghan-controlled. He mentioned that real peace in Afghanistan is about ‘double peace’ — peace within and peace in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood. India’s bona fides are well established with development projects in each of 34 provinces in Afghanistan, he added. Jaishankar was in Dushanbe recently for the 15th Heart of Asia conference of 15 countries that assist Afghanistan's development plan.

At Raisina, CDS General Bipin Rawat, when asked about the impact of the vacuum caused due to de-induction of foreign troops, said it would create problems if vacant spaces were occupied by ‘disrupters’, referring to terrorist groups, including the Taliban entities outside the peace process. At Raisina 2018, it was General Rawat who had said India should engage the Taliban resulting in government clarification that General Rawat had spoken ‘in his personal capacity’. When India will formally recognise and confer with Taliban has become a minor mystery.

Designed to jump-start the Trump moribund peace process, the BB (Biden-Blinken) abridged peace plan appears to have removed conditions of February 29, 2020, US-Taliban agreement on counter-terrorism guarantees by the Taliban, talks with Kabul and a cease-fire. The withdrawal will be without any framework political agreement and no intra-Afghan talks till foreign troops have vacated the soil of the Islamic Emirate.

The BB plan envisages a transitional power-sharing government to replace the present one with a 21-member commission (10 from Taliban) to draft a new Constitution followed by a 90-day agreement on Significant Reduction in Violence. The Doha process is to be revamped between April 24 and May 4 with Ankara hosting the conversations. President Ashraf Ghani has indicated he will divulge his counter-proposal for early presidential elections at Ankara, provided Mullah Haibatullah or Mullah Yaqoob attend. A regional conference of stakeholders — on the lines of the Bonn conference in 2001 which the Taliban did not attend — is to be held with the US, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and India, along with the Taliban and other Afghan groups towards evolving a unified approach. The UN Secretary-General has appointed Jean Arnault as his personal envoy and Sherpa for this conference. Reasonable confusion prevails among the interlocutors with overlapping peace plans and Ghani’s own ideas on political transition.

Foreign Minister Hanif Atmar, on a visit to Delhi on March 30, said that at Ankara, the Afghan government will discuss three issues with the Taliban: a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire (as opposed to 90-day reduction in violence); a political settlement including elections; and regional and international guarantees of peace. This is Kabul’s agenda, not necessarily in sync with the Taliban’s. Atmar virtually rejected the BB plan for interim government saying it was against the Afghan Constitution which is what is sought to be re-drafted. Atmar has canvassed for a bigger role for India in the peace process adding that Afghanistan does not wish to become a safe haven for international terrorists. Jaishankar informed Raisina 2021 that according to a UN report, there were some 8,000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan. In a cheeky comment, China said it will hold the US accountable for legitimate concerns of regional countries to prevent terrorists from taking advantage of withdrawal of foreign forces.

The Ghani government’s acceptance of withdrawal of foreign troops by September 11 is not condition-based but accompanied by certain US assurances of combat support for ANSF. Besides the 2,500 US troops left in Kabul, another 1,000 boots are on the ground belonging to the Special Forces and Ranger units which are not on inventory. The Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) US-Afghanistan 2015 is meant to be in force till the end of 2024 and beyond. The BSA refers to the retention of US bases in Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar and is governed by a Status of Forces Agreement. It is inconceivable that the Americans will vacate strategic outposts such as these that lean on Russia and China. Silence shrouds the BSA!

Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a surprise visit to Kabul following one by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. He spoke to Pakistan's Army Chief General Bajwa who assured him of cooperation in the withdrawal process. He noted that the threat of terrorism has gone away from Afghanistan. The 132-day reprieve sought by the Biden administration will come at a cost. The Taliban has threatened consequences for overstaying the May 1 deadline. As many as 7,000 Taliban prisoners are still held by Kabul. These are in addition to the exchange of 5,000 hardcore Talibs released for 1,000 ANSF. Meanwhile, while no US soldier has been killed in combat last year, the monthly attrition rate for ANSF and civilians is a staggering 800 and 280.

One has to see whether a permanent ceasefire or a 90-day reduction in violence is successfully achieved or neither; and if Ghani's proposal for a mid-term presidential election is acceptable to the Taliban when the Americans have offered to catapult them to an interim provisional government. All eyes are on Ankara.

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