American expediency in Afghanistan (Column Spy’s Eye)

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The US-Taliban agreement signed at Doha on February 29 — in the presence of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — does make a lot of sense from the American point of view as it marks an apparent progress on the promise of President Donald Trump that he would bring his troops back from the godforsaken Afghan territory which had been the scene of the longest running combat of America anywhere in pursuit of the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’.

The US picked up from where it had suspended talks being held by its representative, Zilmay Khalilzad, with Taliban , after the radical outfit decided on a tactical move to scale down its militant activity to facilitate resumption of negotiations. The agreement meant to pave the way for a swifter move towards final peace, essentially opens up the course for the US to reduce the strength of American troops to 8,600 in the immediate range and withdraw the rest before 14 months were over. The Taliban had earlier rejected any negotiation with the Afghan government on power sharing compelling Khalilzad to hold the Doha dialogue at the back of President Ashraf Ghani but it has now agreed to participate in ‘intra- Afghan’ talks from March 10 by which time mutual release of 1,000 prisoners held by the Taliban and nearly 5,000 in the custody of the Afghan government would supposedly be worked out too.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the agreement is the nuanced distinction made by the US policy makers between the Taliban — the Asian component of the radical Taliban-Al Qaeda axis — and the Arab radicals led by Osama bin Laden who had dominated the Afghan Emirate installed at Kabul by Pakistan in 1996. The agreement rests on an affirmation from the Taliban that it would not allow Al Qaeda or ISIS to organise any act of terror from Afghan soil against the US. This clearly was designed to claim that the Trump Presidency had made America more secure — notwithstanding the historical fact of the hands-in -glove kind of relationship existing amongst these radical entities.

It is significant that the agreement has been hailed by Taliban supporters as a victory — those of them attending the event chanted Allah-o-Akbar all through the proceedings. Also, the tenor of religious extremism was so evident in the bitter remarks made by the Taliban top leader Mullah Baradar before pressmen earlier to the effect that even though the US had ousted the Islamic Emirate from Afghanistan that regime was coming back finally. Mullah Baradar was the signatory to the agreement with Zilmay Khalilzad.

The Afghanistan situation has differing implications for the US and India though their shared concerns would be on the possibility that the Taliban might again dominate Afghan polity and that Afghanistan might become the anchor once again of radical Islamic militancy in South Asia. President Trump had an innate aversion towards Islamic extremism and he was not keen beyond a point to fight somebody else’s war overseas — the ‘war on terror’ fundamentally required the Muslim world to fight the radicals on its own soil first. The US President, in his own words, would rather ‘bomb out the enemy’ on its home ground — like he claimed to have done to ISIS in Syria and Iraq — than leave American soldiers in a messy battleground.

For India, it is like a trouble spot next door made more dangerous because of the total connivance of Pakistan with Islamic radicals of the Pak-Afghan belt as also its sponsorship of the India-specific militants of LeT, JeM and Hizbul Mujahideen. US has kept Pakistan on its side for handling the Taliban challenge and visualised India’s role as somewhat limited to aiding development and helping the Ashraf Ghani government to run a democratic regime in Afghanistan. The agreement pleases Pakistan but compels India to watch out against further developments in Afghanistan. The first response of Ashraf Ghani against accepting any conditionality for intra-Afghan talks, by way of release of prisoners, speaks of the atmosphere of distrust that prevails all round.

The Afghan strategy of India has to be to try to keep a democratic form of government going in Afghanistan and get both the US and Russia to work for that objective — this alone will give India an effective channel of contact with that country. It is not ruled out that with the assertion of the Taliban in Afghan politics, the forces of the erstwhile Northern Alliance would also step up their activities and all of this would recreate domestic turbulence of the kind that had led Benazir Bhutto to despatch the Taliban to Kabul in 1993, in the first place. The Taliban were the radical fundamentalists produced by the Deobandi madrasas in the Pak-Afghan region particularly the North West Frontier and they suppressed all infighting ruthlessly to establish the Islamic Emirate at Kabul in 1996 under Mullah Omar.

This regime wedded to extreme fundamentalism was — it may be recalled — given recognition only by Saudi Arabia and UAE, besides Pakistan. The Taliban rule then lost no time in unleashing its hatred against the US and because of its intrinsic radicalism went after the symbols of idol worshippers too, destroying the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan in the bargain. The attempt of the US to oust the Taliban government in which Osama bin Laden was Mullah Omar’s main mentor, had laid the run up to 9/11. Much water has flown under the bridge since but the historical antipathy of Islamic radicals towards the US-led West is not likely to fade away any time soon. In the post- agreement period there should ideally be a total convergence between the US and India on Afghanistan in the interest of the democratic world.

The Doha agreement is an expedient move forward for the Trump administration in a situation that had put the American troops in an Afghan quagmire on account of the persistent violence by the Taliban there, the duplicitous role of Pakistan as an intermediary between the US and the radical outfit and the inevitable play of Cold War alignments in a country that was aptly described once as ‘the geographical pivot of history’. The new reality of the rise of faith-based terror propelled by radical Islam being a prime threat to the democratic order in the post- Cold War era is yet to sink in amongst the vulnerable countries. The danger of ‘radicalisation’ sustaining itself through the ‘revivalist’ forces within the Muslim world is still not fully grasped there — the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) though broadly friendly to the West has not been able to proclaim its rejection of the use of Jehad as a form of ‘warfare’ in today’s world. Perhaps no other country is in for the kind of threat that India faces on this count, primarily because of the planned ‘proxy war’

Pakistan had launched against this country since the mid-Nineties by infiltrating hardened Mujahideen across the LoC in Kashmir and elsewhere. The tentative US-Taliban agreement may help the Trump regime in the short run but it should ring in the alarm bells for India for the distinct possibility it creates of a hostile Pakistan further queering the pitch for India — after acquiring a sway in Afghanistan through a friendly Taliban. Our strategy has to be a mix of strong counter-terror operations on our territory and even beyond our borders, an effective ‘de radicalisation’ programme and a diplomatic outreach to Afghanistan to prempt any anti-India manoeuvres of Pakistan in that country.

(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)



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