US rush to Afghan peace: for Trump’s reelection or for real?

Will the peace agreement be followed up by a withdrawal of US troops? Saeed Naqvi

US rush to Afghan peace: for Trump’s reelection or for real?
When the US signed the peace agreement with Afghan Taliban on February 29 in Doha, mutual recriminations were obviously brushed under the carpet but some of these must be remembered for historical record.

Taliban were defeated in December, 2001 by a coalition led by NATO and helped by Russia, Iran, India, the Northern Alliance of which the “Lion of Panjshir,” Ahmad Shah Masoud was the architect and leader while he lived.

Masoud carried his fierce opposition to Taliban and Al Qaeda to international forums. These included a fateful address to the European Parliament in Brussels in the spring of 2001. His forces, much the most effective in Afghanistan, had picked up chatter on a possible Osama bin Laden (Al Qaeda) – Taliban action on the US mainland. On September 9, two Arabs, with passports forged in Brussels, approached Masoud disguised as journalists in his hideout bordering Tajikistan and detonated their vests. That was the end of an Afghan hero who had begun to be compared with Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and others in that league. This was on September 9 as I have said earlier. On September 11, two planes flew into the Twin Towers. Did someone want Masoud out of the way because he knew too much?

So keen was Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy for the peace talks, to sign a document that on current showing he would have accommodated any formulations, even swear words, in the pre-US election agreement. Read the text of the agreement and you will be amused. The heading to the document reads:

“Agreement for bringing peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America.”

If the US does not recognise the emirate, the insertion of this self-definition of the Taliban could mean that the phraseology is not to be taken seriously or is valid only up to the US elections after which, well, who cares? Also, if suitable caveats were not there, the position of President Ashraf Ghani would look comical. As it is, he is looking in the region like the leader with the thickest skin. Having been tied at one ankle with rival Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani cannot even hobble without Abdullah’s concurrence or a US nod. To top it all, the Taliban are scaring him with nightmares of an Islamic Emirate in which even a self-imposed, posh exile (like Hamid Karzai) will become impossible.

All of this will tickle Robin Raphel to distraction. As under Secretary of State for South Asia, Raphel was among the authors of the original understanding with the Taliban in the mid-90s. The US, with Raphel in the lead, had spotted the Taliban as the most muscular force in Afghanistan. The game was simple. Taliban would control Afghanistan; the US would control Taliban. TAPI, the Turkmenistan, Afghan, Pakistan, India gas pipeline, because of which Afghanistan was stoked in the first place, would then become feasible. Everyone would toss up their hats and whistle. Then, as now, South Block was four square behind the US project. A slight problem then was that National Security Adviser J.N. Dixit and his coterie had declared Raphel persona non grata because she had mentioned Kashmir as a “disputed territory,” a statement attributed by South Block to her friendship with Benazir Bhutto.

As a journalist, lucky to be at the right place, I was witness to Raphel’s Afghanistan project coming to naught. Ambassador Frank Wisner had invited some of us to meet friends he was escorting to a holiday in Bhutan. Among his guests was Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the UN and a fixture in the Washington foreign policy establishment.

Just as the conversation picked up, Holbrooke received a call from Washington. He walked to the far end to take the call and returned waving his hands. “The Taliban project is over.” Apparently, Christiane Amanpour of the CNN had shaken up Washington with a series of prime time features on the excruciatingly harsh application of Shariah law on women.

Raphel lived to rue the telecast. “A strategic move had fallen victim to US gender politics,” she told this reporter. Well, she should now reach out and shake hands with Trump, Mike Pompeo, Khalilzad for the hospitality they are according to a project not dissimilar to the one she had launched in the 90s. The idea was to treat Taliban as the most powerful group in Afghanistan.

Will the peace agreement be followed up by a withdrawal of US troops? Between conception and execution a shadow does sometimes fall. After all, President Barack Obama had set his heart on withdrawing US troops by July, 2011. One would take the will for the deed in Afghanistan had Obama not jumped into the Syrian quagmire, the very next month, in August 2011. I was in Damascus when US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Stephen Ford, along with his French counterpart spoke to protesters in Hama, Homs, Darra, in small groups. Obama administration was providing communications facilities named “Liberation technology movement.” Bashar al Assad had to be replaced by someone more pliable.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan meanwhile remained a still born project. General Stanley McChrystal, Commander of US forces in Afghanistan, cited the popularity of India’s socio-economic development work as an obstacle to peace, because it distracts Pakistan from its war on terror focus. The US establishment in Afghanistan was unable to bank on Pakistan’s total co-operation for peace in the nation. Rawalpindi GHQ’s fears of what India might be up to was a constant distraction. Yes, Indian consulates in Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Kandahar were cited as “spy nests” from where India helped stoke rebellion in Balochistan. Even McChrystal’s successor, General David Petraeus complained of India’s “cold start” doctrine. In other words, Pakistan’s centrality to Afghan peace was the anchor to US policy. Are there reasons to believe that strategic appraisal has changed in Washington with regard to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan? Something is not adding up.

The writer is a journalist based in India

The writer is a journalist based in India.