G Parthasarathy

Peace deal with US won’t deter Taliban

G Parthasarathy | Updated on March 17, 2020 Published on March 16, 2020

The Taliban, backed by Pakistani players, may well continue expanding its reign over Afghanistan. India must protect its interests

Afghanistan has aptly been described as the “graveyard of Empires”. The British beat an ignominious retreat in the 19th Century after attempting to invade the country. The mighty Soviet Union disintegrated shortly after it found that waging war in Afghanistan was unaffordable. And now, the world’s only “superpower”, the US, is preparing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 9, 2001, were planned in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The Taliban had close contacts with radical Islamic groups worldwide, including the al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. Activists in bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups from across the world found a safe haven in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, which was formally recognised and duly-backed by Pakistan.

Indian attacks

The abject surrender of India to Taliban demands in Kandahar during the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight 814, was a serious blunder. Four hardcore terrorists detained by India were released and handed over to the Taliban in Kandahar. Among these was Maulana Masood Azhar, who became the Head of the Jaish-e-Mohammed and masterminded the attack on India’s Parliament on December 13, 2000. Azhar still heads the extremist group. The ISI now claims he is “missing”.

The second terrorist released was Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who brutally killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. He is currently imprisoned in Pakistan, albeit with many comforts, including a mobile phone. The third was Mushtaq Zargar, an assassin who killed several Kashmiris and now lives comfortably in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Is it surprising that the ISI sometimes finds that India’s bark is stronger than its bite?

These are facts we should never forget, at a time when US President Donald Trump is preparing to decrease and subsequently end American military presence Afghanistan. In accordance with its agreement with the Taliban, signed on February 29, the US is committed to reducing its forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 troops within four months. It will, thereafter, withdraw all its troops in the next 9.5 months. There are also other provisions — which spell victory for the Taliban — such as the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners by March 10. This is something that even the otherwise obedient Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani tried to resist.

Victory for the Taliban

These provisions appear tailor-made for the Taliban, backed by the ISI, to progressively take over the whole of Afghanistan. Despite claims of innocence by the Taliban, the ground is being set for Afghanistan to become a base for international terrorism, once again. Moreover, there are reportedly certain ‘secret’ clauses in the US-Taliban agreement, which are vague about action that will be taken against the Taliban if it transgresses the cease-fire agreement with the government.

A recent edition of Jaish-e-Mohammed publication Medina, Medina averred that the much-touted US-Taliban agreement was a great “victory” for the Taliban jihad against the US. The Jaish boasted that the victory was “just like the Jihadis were victorious against the former superpower, the Soviet Union”. It is interesting that the Jaish, which was the behind the Pathankot Airport and Pulwama attacks in recent times, is openly boasting in this manner. The Jaish has, after all, emerged as the prime instrument of the ISI for its jihad against India, after the Lashkar-e-Taiba was cast aside and its leader Hafiz Mohammed Saeed found “guilty” of money laundering. This was done just to persuade the International Financial Action Task Force, not to impose sanctions on Pakistan.

The Jaish will, however, remain close to the Taliban, ideologically. It will also be a favoured partner of the ISI in promoting radicalism in Pakistan, terrorism in India and the cause of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

While some Taliban groups and their leaders are making reassuring noises about wanting normal ties with India, the real threat to Indian interests will come from the Haqqani Network, based in Pakistan. Its Pakistan-based leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has been a long-term ISI asset in Afghanistan. The Haqqani network could be used by the ISI to attack Indians and Indian projects in Afghanistan.

Truce doubtful

Much is going to depend on the abilities of the Afghan National Army to confront the Taliban. While there is talk of negotiating a ceasefire between warring groups in Afghanistan, the Taliban has little interest in maintaining a durable truce. There is now possibility of returning to the situation prevailing before the 9/11 attacks, which first provoked the massive US military intervention.

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan on terms, which people acknowledge, are reminiscent of their hurried and humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam. This symbolises yet again the limitations of American military power. Despite pious protestations of non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, the ISI will spare no effort to see that a pliant Taliban regime, distrusted across the world, takes over control of Afghanistan. Much will depend on the terms under which the Americans depart from Afghanistan.

The Russians, too, do not appear enthused at the prospect of a Taliban takeover. The Taliban had, after all, been very hospitable to armed Russian Chechen separatists, who waged a brutal civil war against Moscow, before the American intervention in 2001.

The US-Taliban agreement is, at best, a statement of good intentions. In an ultimate analysis, the Taliban does not believe in compromising on its ultimate aim of making Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate. It may, however, find it expedient to make tactical compromises. Despite much talk of a ceasefire, the Taliban will continue its efforts to extend the area under its control. The Haqqani Network will continue to expand its influence in eastern and southern Afghanistan. The country could well be divided on ethnic and sectarian lines, as it was earlier, with the Pashtun Taliban on one side and the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Baloch and Shia Hazaras, on the other.

India will have to manoeuvre adroitly to retain a presence in Afghanistan and focus primarily on economic development projects, provided the safety of Indian nationals is guaranteed. Depending on circumstances, it can augment the military cooperation it has extended to Afghanistan. Much will depend on the role the US chooses to play, in collaboration with Russia. The two countries appear to be on the same page on current developments in Afghanistan. When their Special Envoys met in Doha during the signing of the Taliban-US agreement, there seem to be some meeting of minds.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

 

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Published on March 16, 2020
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