The United States and Taliban signed an Agreement on 29 February in Doha to end the 18-year old war. American President Donald Trump facing re-election in November this year made the promise four years ago to “bring the boys home”. He said, “it is time after all these years to bring our people back home and talks between Afghan government and Taliban should begin soon.” But what is more significant is what he said should happen in near future in Afghanistan. The following statement of Donald Trump has a message for India, and it is time New Delhi takes that on board.
The American President said, “The US troops had been killing terrorists in thousands and it was time for someone else to do that work; it will be Taliban or could be surrounding countries.” This is what New Delhi should see, an opportunity to engage in Afghanistan, ease America’s burden a bit, and counter Pakistan’s maneuvers and reduce Islamabad leveraging Afghanistan against India.
I have been one of those who have disagreed with New Delhi’s position since the beginning of the Afghan crisis, way back in 1979. On 24 December 1979, Soviet forces moved into Afghanistan to protect pro-Soviet Communist government in Kabul. In the face of resistance to Communist government by Mujahideen , the Afghan government had signed a Friendship Treaty with Soviet Union. Invoking that Treaty, controversially, Soviets invaded Afghanistan, a non-aligned, independent and sovereign country. In the midst of the Cold War, the other superpower, United States under Jimmy Carter, reacted by trade embargo, boycotting Olympic games taking place in Moscow, and more important, supplying weapons to Mujahideen to fight the Soviet Army.
New Delhi’s reaction was unequivocally pro-Soviet. When Indira Gandhi returned to power a few days later in January 1980, she said, “India should try to diffuse the crisis”, without explaining what it meant, or without acting on it. In fact, when there was a Resolution moved in the United Nations calling for the “withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan soil”, India abstained.
Finding no support from New Delhi, the US turned to Pakistan to help Mujahideen’s challenge the Soviets. Gradually Soviet Union became weaker and was disintegrating under its own contradictions. Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, and split two years later with Gorbachev’s reforms on democratisation etc. Soviet Union out of the scene, the Islamic forces in Afghanistan took charge and Taliban came to power.
In the meanwhile, from 1979 till date America heavily supported Pakistan as a front line state to first fight Soviets, then after 2011 to fight Talibans. Ironically, Taliban has been propped up by Pakistan only. What is important to note is that all the support military or otherwise Pakistan received from America was used against India. It could have been different if New Delhi took a balanced position at the time.
The second invasion of Afghanistan took place in 2011 by the United States and the international coalition in 2011, following the deadly attacks on USA, led by Afghanistan based Al-Qaeda terrorists in September same year. Afghanistan refused to hand over the mastermind of the attack, Osama Bin Laden. The Americans got heavily engaged, their troops reaching 100,000 at one point under Obama Administration. At present, there are 12,000 US troops, the NATO and other international forces have withdrawn from active military engagement except training Afghan government forces. And about 58,000 security personnel and 42,000 opponents have been killed since.
Talibans, perhaps worn out by the protracted war, wanted to talk to the US leadership. Donald Trump, in keeping with his promise and America first policy, wanted a ceasefire and drawing down of American forces. At the behest of Qatar, the Peace Agreement was signed between American special envoy Khalilzad and the Taliban Chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Bavader witnessed by Mike Pompeo, the American Secretary of State. After this the Taliban is supposed to be talking to the Afghan government. Taliban wants all foreign forces withdrawn, and Americans and others want a stable Afghan government, and no support to terrorism from Afghan soil.
Many observers are skeptical about the Agreement for at least five reasons – one, there is lack of clarity on US strategy; second, Taliban may not fully honour the commitment; third, the Islamic State militants are beyond control; fourth, Talibans have their roots in Pakistan, whose role is always a suspect, Osama bin Laden was found hiding in Pakistan; and, fifth, there is no other country in the region which can step in even partly for the US.
This is where New Delhi has to rethink its Afghan Policy. Donald Trump has more than once hinted at it, and in his own way mocked India’s humanitarian approach. New Delhi should be ready to support America and other international forces in making Taliban to uphold their commitments, to reduce violence, and not increase attacks or destabilise governments.
India’s involvement will reduce America’s dependence on Pakistan, and the risk of terrorism coming from Pakistan. America remains committed to Afghanistan as Donald Trump had said, “If bad things happen, we will go back with force like no one has ever seen.” New Delhi should bargain with the US than for movement of troops etc. India should have access through ‘POK’. That would be New Delhi’s Trump card for engagement in Afghanistan. Tall order! But doable.