Taliban Deal: Donald Trump’s next big agenda in south Asia

February 27, 2020 10:32 AM

A partial interim understanding has been reached with the Taliban and major deal is likely to be signed on 29th February if it holds on.

donald trump, usThe Taliban question acquires greater importance as he gets strongly into his re-election campaign. (Reuters)

By Ambassador Anil Trigunayat

After a highly successful visit to India with over $ 23 bn in energy and defence deals and a uniquely boisterous and endearing welcome, the next challenge or the feather in his cap will be the ceasefire and roadmap deal with the Taliban that could enable him to fulfil another of his poll promises of calling back his troops from unnecessary conflict zones.

This acquires greater importance as he gets strongly into his re-election campaign. A partial interim understanding has been reached with the Taliban and major deal is likely to be signed on 29th February if it holds on. It has failed several times. At the Andrews Air Force base before his departure to India, in response to a question, Trump claimed“ We are doing something — we’ve been in the war in Afghanistan now for 19 years.

We’ve substantially reduced the force, as you know. We’re really acting more as a law enforcement agency than we are as military because we could win that very quickly and easily if I was willing to kill millions of people. I’m not willing to do that. I’m not willing to do that. We’d win that so quickly your head would spin. And I’m not talking about nuclear; I’m talking about very conventional. But I’m not willing to kill millions of people. So we are negotiating with the Taliban. We’ve been negotiating with them for a while. We will see what happens. There’s a chance of making a deal. There’s a chance.”

Taliban that was spawned by Pakistan with the help of the US and Saudi Arabia in order to defeat the Soviets in the 1980s has grown into a formidable force and entity to begin with which wants to establish the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan on the extreme principles that were quite visible during their in Kabul during the 1990s. Pakistan and Qatar have remained as the key interlocutors for USA and others.

Pakistan more so as it hosts a large part of the Talibani leadership and outfits and its security and intelligence agencies have deep umbilical connections with them which provide Pakistan the trump card to encash its nuisance value with the US and other stakeholders. Russia, which has a special and privileged strategic partnership with India has often given the argument that one of the key reasons for its increasing proximity to Pakistan is in the context of Afghanistan where it has obvious geopolitical interests.

Russia, therefore, also keeps on its own format and track of talks for reconciliation of various Afghan groups including Taliban and remains a major player. Iran and Uzbekistan, who are Afghanistan’s other important neighbours and who did not like the religio-politics of Taliban are also coming around under the rubric of Afghan-led peace process. Taliban, meanwhile, has grown in influence amidst the ongoing, political brinkmanship in the current dispensation which has been further accentuated by the recent controversy over the presidential elections. Taliban is going to be the major factor of stability in the emerging order or disorder in Afghanistan.

Having had a bitter experience during the last Taliban rule and their close dependence and relationship with Pakistan the concerns of India are legitimate for whom Afghanistan is a hugely important strategic neighbour. It is also in this context that not only India’s invested over $3 bn in Afghanistan’s infrastructure through difficult yet iconic projects like the Salma Dam and Afghan Parliament building but has emerged as the most important partner in capacity building across the whole socio-security spectrum.

Moreover, historical linkages between India and Afghanistan at people to people level have continued to strengthen and no wonder as per some surveys Indians are the most liked people in Afghanistan. As for Taliban given their adherence to violence and disregard for the constitution, India did not distinguish between Good and Bad Taliban, unlike others as certain redlines needed to be complied with. But the US haste to wind up from far off non-essential conflict zones under Trump the whole landscape has changed.

Besides the real ground situation seemed to warrant to the western countries the need to engage with the Taliban. However, the US does appreciate the positive role being played by India that was also manifest in the Joint Statement issued during President Trump’s visit and it reiterates India’s position and reads “ India and the United States share an interest in a united, sovereign, democratic, inclusive, stable and prosperous Afghanistan. They support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process that results in sustainable peace; cessation of violence; elimination of terrorist safe havens; and preservation of the gains of the last 18 years. President Trump welcomed India’s role in continuing to provide development and security assistance to help stabilize and provide connectivity in Afghanistan.”

In order to continue its assistance and connectivity with Kabul, India worked closely with Iran to develop Chabahar port and it hopes that the Port will be spared of the US sanctions. Moreover although not directly engaging with Taliban India had sent two of its former Ambassadors to Pakistan and Afghanistan respectively for the Moscow talks thereby indirectly expressing its acknowledgement. Backdoor channels might be on too as in diplomatic domain one tries all options.

Meanwhile, the Taliban refused to be dragged into denouncing Art 370 abrogation in J&K by the Indian government. In 2012 they had indicated that Taliban wished to have cordial relations with India. Recently, its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed rebuked Pakistan for trying to turn Afghanistan into a theatre of competition “Linking the issue of Kashmir with that of Afghanistan by some parties will not aid in improving the crisis at hand because the issue of Afghanistan is not related.”. Apparently winds of change might be in the offing.

Americans, especially their special envoy Ambassador Khalilzad, are quite hopeful of some kind of an agreement which might bring about a way forward to intra-afghan dialogue for political accommodation and peace in this war-torn country. While many would not like Americans to stay in the region they also do not want to leave them in haste either leading to an uncertain vacuum. This is the dilemma even US faces.

It will be interesting to see how the whole gamut of multiple scenarios plays out for an elusive congruence of competing interests. India has to also play its hand adroitly as Pakistan would not allow it primacy in Afghanistan even in peace times. However, I guess a non-interventionist India can bank on the Afghan goodwill irrespective of who leads the charge in Kabul.


(The author is Distinguished Fellow VIF. Views expressed are personal)

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