US officials and Taliban representatives have signed a final peace deal after months of negotiations in Qatar's capital to end the United States's longest war, fought in Afghanistan. Saturday's agreement, signed in Doha in the presence of leaders from Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, will pave the way for the United States to gradually withdraw its troops. The two sides have long wrangled over the US demand for a ceasefire before the final peace agreement was signed. Earlier on Saturday, the Taliban ordered all its fighters to halt fighting and "refrain from attacks". Mohammed Naeem, a Taliban representative in Doha, described the deal as "a step forward". The US invaded Afghanistan weeks after the September 2001 attacks by the Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda group. More than 2,400 US troops have been killed during the conflict. About 12,000 are still stationed in the country. President Trump has promised to put an end to the conflict. On this edition of the big picture we will analyse the deal reached by the US and Taliban. This edition of the big picture analyses the deal reached by the US and Taliban.
Edited excerpts from the Debate:
Question: The deal that was reached in Doha:-
US has been exhausted by its long drawn-out involvement in Afghanistan. President Trump, during his presidential campaign, had promised that he would withdraw and bring back US soldiers from Afghanistan. He had explicitly spoken against US's involvement in the “forever wars”.
In one sense, he is fulfilling a political pledge. But this is beyond just president Trump himself, because across the political system, now there is little appetite in the US for continued involvement in Afghanistan.
The peace deal has been long coming. One previous peace deal was aborted because Taliban resorted to violence and US backed away from it. This time the peace deal was renegotiated with the window for reduction in violence being kept small (just one week).
If for one week there is no major occurrence of violence then the peace deal will be signed.
The peace deal provides for withdrawal of the remaining more than 13000 US troops in Afghanistan over a period of 14 months, and a quicker draw-down to 8600 soldiers over the next 135 days.
The deal asserts that it will be based on the conditions on ground. The question that remains is that:
As the US withdraws, if the condition on ground deteriorates, its not clear if the US will halt its withdrawal or continue;
At the end of it, will the US retain a residual presence in the form of intelligence etc.
With the withdrawal of US forces, would there be a continued commitment to Afghanistan's stability.
It is possible the that international community would have to continue to fund the Afghan army and forces, otherwise it is going to collapse.
While the Afghan forces have shown ability to withstand and fightback Taliban on slots, but they are fully funded from overseas.
So if that support is withdrawn, it may lead to chaos.
The deal is meanwhile suppose to pave way for a political dialogue between the Afghan government and Taliban.
Till now, the Taliban had refused to engage with the Afghan government.
It remains to be seen if Taliban will direct its efforts in engaging with the Afghan government, or overthrowing it.
Question: What made this deal possible?
War weariness: The long drawn and inconclusive war of the US alongside NATO partners in Afghanistan, taking huge number of casualties and injured. This war got spread to over 32 countries who have been taking part in the mammoth effort to stabilise Afghanistan for last 19 years.
War cost: Many billion dollars have already been spent in this war; and such an effort needs a very strong financial backing. This was seen as a 'hopeless war', not achieving desired outcomes and should be seen against the backdrop of US's commitments elsewhere.
Issue of Pakistan: Earlier, Pakistan's full support was not forthcoming. Over a period of time the US has been able to persuade and extract commitment from Pakistan that they will not sabotage the deal by supporting Taliban and overrunning the government in Afghanistan
Vulnerability of the Afghan government (Ashraf Ghani government) is well known; also said to be ruling only over Kabul and some peripheral areas.
Over a period of time, the Afghan security forces have been able to increase their control to other areas, but still not to the extreme east and south where Taliban still has control (due to its strong links with Pakistan, which provides the lifeline).
Recent statements emanating from Taliban suggest that they are not entirely with Pakistan and that differences between the two have cropped up. (The US wants to take advantage of this situation).
Why Doha: Doha is the only place where Taliban has been officially allowed to open their office.
Earlier Taliban also had offices in Saudi Arabia and UAE, but they were expelled after the Taliban government fell in 1990s.
Doha was consciously agreed by the Americans, Saudis and the Afghan government also gave its consent.
The Doha office of Taliban has been functioning regularly since about 3 years now.
Even though the Russia, Turkey, China and Iran, all tried to have a share in the deal, but finally it was the American who reached an agreement with the Taliban “to bring peace in Afghanistan”.
It remains to be seen if peace will eventually come in Afghanistan or not.
Also, it is not yet clear if US will retain, or hand over its military bases in Afghanistan to the sovereign control of Afghan government.
Question: What will happen to the bases, equipments and infrastructure that the Americans have built in Afghanistan? Will they be destroyed or handed over to someone? How much of a challenge does this pose to the region?
There are some grey areas in the deal:
Intra-Afghan talks: Once the one week window for violence reduction ends, the intra-Afghan talks between Afghan government, Taliban and other armed rebel groups is suppose to start. While Ashraf Ghani was declared as the winner in Afghan elections, opposing Abdullah Abdullah has not accepted it. So the question remains who will be representing the Afghan government and how will the opposing party be taken on board. What really will the new government in Afghanistan look like.
No ceasefire: No ceasefire has officially been declared, so it remains unclear if US will still move out of Afghanistan in 14 months, if situation of violence increases.
Afghan national army: Doubts regarding ability of the Afghan national army who may not be able to control Taliban, in case things go wrong.
US air power: While the strength of American troops in Afghanistan is 13000, it is actually the US air power (drone attacks, armed air helicopters etc.) which is making a difference in supporting the Afghan national army. Hence, the question remains that will US leave behind a retaliatory force (in form of air support) for the Afghanistan government.
Question: What does this peace deal mean for India?
India's concern is that the process of American withdrawal should not leave a vacuum in the region which is filled by extremists and terrorists. It should not lead to a civil war in Afghanistan. Nor should it put at risk all the developments that India's has been engaging in Afghanistan.
India is exposed in Afghanistan because it has given it an aid of $ 3 bn.
India is working on a large number of developmental projects in Afghanistan. Security of Indians working on these projects can become an issue.
Whatever be the shape of the new regime that emerges in Afghanistan after successful peace talks, the gains that were made in terms of political pluralism (government is not always held only by one party), protection of minority and women's rights, surrender of arms by some of the armed rebel groups, and giving up of terrorism as an instrument, should not be squandered and continue to be on the table.
India has always maintained that it should be an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process.
Concern regarding Pakistan: As Pakistan cooperates with the US through the period and process of delivering peace in Afghanistan, it should not get the idea that it has a free-run in moving Jihadi and terrorist groups to the western front.
Hence, for the peace process to really be successful, US cannot ease pressure on terrorism and there should be continued pressure to dismantle terrorist groups, bases and support.
Question: What should India do to stay a relevant player in Afghanistan?
India's Ambassador in Doha, P. Kumaran, was invited to the peace dialogue as an 'observer' and witness the signing ceremony. Developments in Afghanistan are two-fold:
Factions other than Taliban: While Taliban is the key element in peace negotiations, there are other extremist groups also involved, like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other extremist groups who fought in Syria, Libya etc. and have now also reached Afghanistan.
So while Taliban has signed the peace deal, it remains a concern as to whether Taliban has control over these other armed groups.
Kashmir issue: During the trouble in 80s and 90s in Kashmir, foreign fighters like Taliban and others were able to reach Kashmir and create mayhem. Hence security situation in Kashmir, either directly or indirectly (in connivance with Pakistan) is a cause of concern for India.
In this regard, India's own relation (independent of Pakistan's involvement in the deal) with US is of prime importance, and there is need to see Trump's visit to India and the grandeur of his reception within this context.
Hence, whatever leverage US has over Pakistan is of immense importance, given that Pakistan is still very much dependent on US in terms of the military financial support.
Question: With Pakistan now being relevant in the region, can Pakistan get adventurous on the LoC as well?
Till now India did not support Taliban's involvement in any negotiations, and supported an Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled and Afghan monitored peace talk.
India has now agreed to be present when the new negotiations, of which Taliban is a part, are signed.
After November 18 2019, it is the second time India is taking such a stand. The first involvement of India (where two non-officials had gone) was when Taliban and Russia were in dialogue.
Otherwise, India never had a talk with the Taliban government since Kandhar.
India mostly believed that Taliban cannot be relied upon, but gradually it is opening up to Taliban keeping in view the ground realities in Afghanistan.
There is definitely a threat of Taliban coming towards our part of J&K.
There is also a possible threat of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, which are currently in North and North-east of Afghanistan, flowing to our side.
Since Pakistan has played a pivotal role in materialising these negotiations between the US and Taliban, US may not be able to put a strong pressure on Pakistan against Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Strategic importance of Afghanistan to India:
India has done heavy investment in Afghanistan - $ 3 bn.
Strategic road - Delaram–Zaranj Highway – developed with the aim to connect it to Chabahar port in Iran, thus directly connecting us through Afghanistan to Central Asian states, Eastern Europe and Russia.
Railways line going from Chabahar to mineral-rich Hajigak region in Afghanistan.
Developments undertaken by India in Chabahar were done in the hope of Afghanistan remaining peaceful. If that is not the case our investments in Chabahar are going to suffer, and so will our trade with Iran and other Central Asian states.
Afghanistan is a strategic depth for Pakistan, which Pakistan does not want India to gain hold of. India must counter this.
India must shift its focus from Taliban, and en-cash on its good relations with other tribal groups like the Pashtoons and Afghan government.
India has developed schools, hospital and community development centres for empowerment of women, children and minority group. India must leverage its people-to-people contact in Afghanistan.
By attending the peace deal signing ceremony, India has given the signal that we are ready to change in order to stay relevant in Afghanistan, which is requirement of the day.
Conclusion (Way forward): For a very long time India had taken for granted the idea that US presence in Afghanistan will prevent Afghanistan from descending into chaos. But there is a new situation now, which India will have to contend with in Afghanistan. India has to deal with the complete reversal of earlier situation by marshalling its resources, flexibility and determination, and provide support to the Afghan forces in terms of equipments, trainings, airlift helicopters etc. In order for them to deal with the changed circumstance. In this context, India must also redo its diplomatic stance with China, Russia, Turkey, Iran and other Central Asian States .
Practice Question: With the US-Taliban Doha Accord, the ground situation in Afghanistan is going to change. What will be the implications of this on India?