G Parthasarathy

Donald Trump’s Afghan gambit

G Parthasarathy | Updated on January 09, 2019 Published on January 09, 2019

Under pressure Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is fighting a battle for survival against the Taliban   -  Rahmat Gul

As the US President hastens US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, India is faced with new challenges

Given his distaste for military interventions abroad, US President Donald Trump has announced his decision to expedite withdrawal of American forces from Syria and Afghanistan. His critics note that this would amount to betrayal of America’s allies. Despite such criticism, it now appears clear that the US intends to progressively reduce and end military land operations in Afghanistan.

The US has already reduced its military presence to a mere 14,000 troops, with plans to halve this number in a short span of time. A swift military takeover by the Taliban would raise security concerns in India, given the past Taliban role in colluding with the hijackers of IC 814. The Taliban has also provided training facilities and bases for terrorist groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which was responsible for the attack on India’s Parliament.

Pakistan continues to provide the Taliban military and intelligence support, together with safe havens and bases on its soil. The Taliban’s Vice-President Sirajuddin Haqqani resides in and operates from Pakistan. An economically vulnerable Pakistan, whose foreign exchange reserves have dwindled to barely $6 billion, however, faces huge international pressures, from its friends and foes alike, to end its support for the Taliban. Moreover, the International Financial Action Task Force is turning the screws on Pakistan, to end its support for terrorism, or alternately face international sanctions.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have offered to provide financial support to Pakistan, amounting to around $6 billion, for oil imports. But, Pakistan now realises that its economy would collapse without American-backed IMF assistance. The US has linked such assistance to Pakistan, to the ISI ending support for terrorism.

The China factor

Pakistan’s “all weather friend,” China, may claim to be generous. But across Pakistan, there is a growing feeling, similar to that prevalent in several countries ranging from Sri Lanka and Myanmar to Malaysia and Kenya, that China leads every “aid” recipient into a “debt trap.” Beijing thereafter, moves to assert control over strategic Indian Ocean ports like Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Mombasa is Kenya.

Myanmar has met such Chinese challenges by downsizing offers of Chinese “aid,” to build and develop the Bay of Bengal Port of Kyaukpyu and its surrounding areas. Aung San Suu Kyi is reaching out to Japan and others for assisting such projects. The strategic port of Gwadar in Baluchistan is now set to virtually become a Chinese colony. This has resulted in strong Baluch resentment and attacks on Chinese personnel in Baluchistan.

It is crucial for New Delhi to continuously assess how diplomacy surrounding the “end game” of American withdrawal from Afghanistan plays out. American withdrawal will inevitably lead to a greater role for the Taliban in Afghanistan’s national life. The Afghan government is naturally concerned that Trump’s instinctive and ill-advised “Tweet Diplomacy,” can have disastrous results in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood.

The Taliban now controls, or actively contests, the government’s control, in around 45 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory. The Afghan security forces are taking heavy casualties, losing on an average, 30-40 members every day. Important urban centres like Ghazni have been taken over by the Taliban, for days. Presidential elections in Afghanistan have been postponed, following American pressure.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani responded strongly on December 26, with the appointment of two former Intelligence chiefs, who have a track record of being firm opponents of ISI-sponsored terror, to key positions. Amrollah Saleh, a Tajik and erstwhile Ahmed Shah Masood loyalist, has been appointed as Interior Minister, and Asadullah Khalid, a Pashtun, who is also a former Intelligence Chief, who was seriously wounded in a Taliban attack, is the new Defence Minister. This is an important move, reiterating the Afghan government’s resolve, evidently with American backing, to take on the Taliban, strongly.

These developments have been accompanied by frenetic diplomatic activity by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureishi, purporting to demonstrate that Pakistan is making every effort to involve major powers — notably the US, Russia and China — in a quest for peace and stability in Afghanistan. This has accompanied the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American, with vast experience of Pakistani machinations in Afghanistan, as Trump’s envoy, to coordinate American contacts with external powers and all major parties in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.

Talks with Taliban

External powers are, however, treading on each other’s toes, in this effort. A conference convened in Moscow by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, without any senior official American participation, saw formal participation by the Taliban, Pakistan, China and Central Asian Republics. India made common cause with the Afghan government and was not represented in the Moscow Conference by serving government officials, but by former diplomats. India thus made it clear that it will not formally endorse any initiative that equates a constitutionally elected government in Afghanistan, with a medievalist, armed insurgent group.

There are now several countries, with a finger in the Afghan pie. The Taliban has an “office” in Qatar, set up with American blessings. Teheran has been having a secretive “dialogue” with the Taliban. These Iranian contacts with the Taliban, undertaken with Pakistani “approval” and “facilitation,” gathered momentum, after the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar. A Taliban delegation visited Iran last month, for formal discussions with Iranian leaders.

In the meantime, the US has brought in Saudi Arabia and the UAE to facilitate talks with the Taliban. The first round of talks involving representatives of the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Pakistan and the Taliban were held in Abu Dhabi in December 2018. The US has evidently decided that the UAE and Abu Dhabi are more useful in such talks than Qatar, which hosts a Taliban “office”.

Rivalries between Russia, China and the US have spread across the Islamic world, pitting countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia on one side, with Turkey, Iran and Qatar, on the other. Uncertainties in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood are set to make the Afghanistan-Pakistan region even more volatile, especially given the persecution of Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Province.

An increasingly bankrupt Pakistan, now persuaded that its economy could collapse without an American-backed IMF bailout, is trying to balance contradictions between its support for the Taliban and other radical Islamic groups, on the one hand, and its desperate need for American, Saudi Arabian and UAE financial assistance, on the other. New Delhi, in turn, will have to not only deal with rivalries between Islamic countries across its western neighbourhood, but also deal with the pressures arising from policies of the US, Russia and China.

The writer is a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on January 09, 2019
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