First step on long, uncertain road

Afghan protesters march for peace and ceasefire as they hold banners in the Kandahar province on January 17, 2019. AFP

Negotiations between the US government and the Taliban have reached an important milestone. The two sides have agreed on a draft framework for a peace deal. This is the first time since the arrival of US-led forces in Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban regime that such an agreement, however preliminary and minimal it may be, has been reached. It is therefore a historic development. However, it is far too early to celebrate. Although the two sides are referring to it as a peace deal, this is a bit of a misnomer as it is more of a deal on the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan than an agreement on broader issues required for a lasting and meaningful peace in this war-ravaged country. Pull-out of American troops has been a longstanding demand of the Taliban, which has refused to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government so long as US forces remain in Afghanistan. Apparently, under the draft framework, the two sides are exploring a full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire and a Taliban commitment to negotiate with the Afghan government. The Taliban is pressing for a firm date for US troop withdrawal and has made this a condition for talks with the Ashraf Ghani government. It has also promised not to provide sanctuary to international jihadist groups. 

And yet, there is reason for the Ghani government, the Afghan people, India and other stakeholders to be concerned as it does seem that the Donald Trump administration is preparing to cut and run from Afghanistan. In the circumstances, it is likely that Trump will be looking more for a face-saving deal than an agreement that protects Afghanistan’s interests. The Trump administration should keep the Ghani government in the loop and avoid indulging in deal-making with the Taliban. Besides, there is a real possibility of the Taliban returning to fighting once the American troops leave. This is a resurgent Taliban that is negotiating with the US from a position of strength. Why would it agree to a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul when it is in a position to topple the Ghani government militarily? 

The evolving situation is of grave concern to India.  India’s sizeable economic and other interests in Afghanistan could come under fire from the Taliban and its backers in Pakistan once the US leaves. Hitherto, India has depended on the US to secure and stabilise Afghanistan. That is now changing. Delhi needs to engage the Taliban, but also the Ghani government and Afghanistan’s neighbours to ensure that the Taliban respects the Afghan Constitution. China could be a useful partner in this effort.

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