[Updated] US-Taliban Peace Deal – Implications for India

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Feb 10, 2019

The US has decided to withdraw 7,000 out of its 14,000 troops from Afghanistan. The American troops contribute to training and advising local forces fighting the Taliban and ISIS. Trump’s sudden announcement has raised speculation that it could be linked to his pre-election promises to pull out from external wars to save money to consolidate internally. It also signals that the US has perhaps admitted being defeated in Afghanistan and that it had agreed to the Taliban’s demands. This decision is strengthened by the recent talks between the US and Taliban in Doha which has resulted in a framework for a peace agreement, focussed on ending the 17-year-old conflict in Afghanistan.

What is the background?

  • The Taliban emerged in the early 1990s after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan shortly before the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
  • They ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001 with a brutal version of Sharia law that included public executions and amputations, and the banning of women from public life.
  • They are in conflict with the US led troops after the 9/11 attacks of 2001 which the U.S. blamed on al-Qaeda militants sheltered by the Taliban.
  • The US has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, most of which are present as part of a larger NATO-led mission to train, advice and assist Afghan forces.
  • This conflict, known as America’s longest war, has cost more than 2,400 American lives and billions of US dollars.
  • The number of civilians, mostly women and children, killed or injured by airstrikes in Afghanistan has risen 39% every year.
  • In the past 3 years, the Taliban have strengthened their grip. In November 2015, the Afghan government controlled 72% of districts in the country, but now controls only 56% of them.
  • About 1/3rd of Afghanistan is now a contested area.

Click here to read static international relations mindmap for more detailed background on Afghanistan.

What is the shift in the U.S. Policy?

The United States had declared South Asia Strategy for Afghanistan in 2017 under which,

  • US troops would remain involved in the country until situations required the return of the troops.
  • Further, the US would oppose Pakistan for its support to the Taliban.
  • The political settlement with the Taliban would follow only after an effective military effort.
  • Finally, the strategy would focus on further developing the strategic partnership with India.

Despite the strategy, casualties of Afghan National and Defence Security Forces (ANDSF) in May-September 2018 were higher compared to corresponding periods since 2001.

  • The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan also documented more civilian deaths in the first nine months of 2018 than during the same period in 2014.
  • The US has also appointed a special envoy to have direct talks with the Taliban.
  • This reflects that the US has withdrawn its earlier position of not engaging the Taliban until the Taliban engages the Afghan government.
  • But the efforts of the special envoy also fail to deliver much on the peace process.
  • Therefore, the US seem to pull-out its troops and reduce its presence in Afghanistan.

As a result, the U.S. war in Afghanistan turned into a mission for ensuring democracy and prosperity in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the U.S. president had recommended that regional players such as Russia, India and Pakistan should be more involved in stabilising the situation.

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What is the recent peace talks?

The framework agreement signed between US and Taliban peace talks,

  • Taliban made a commitment to not allow terrorists to use Afghan territory to conduct attacks on the US and its allies.
  • The US has made an agreement to pull out troops on condition that the Taliban agrees to talk with the Afghan government and to a permanent ceasefire.

Russia had started its own negotiations with the Taliban.

  • Russia’s strategy included regional players like Iran, China, and several Central Asian nations.
  • India too sent a non-official delegation to Russia-led talks, to find a resolution in Afghanistan.

Both the U.S. and Russia seemed to have agreed to sidestep the current government in Kabul by accepting the Taliban’s condition that it will not negotiate with the elected Afghan government at this stage.

And both the Russian and U.S. processes are dependent on cooperation from Pakistan, which retains its influence over the Taliban leadership.

On its part, the Taliban has also unequivocally renounced ties with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and committed to preventing Afghan soil from being used by foreign terrorists.

What are the concerns with these talks?

  • Despite these developments, the current talks with the Taliban are not Afghan-led, owned or controlled, which was the principle agreed by all stakeholders in the past.
  • Taliban has not reduced violence, or sworn allegiance to the Afghan constitution before joining talks.

What is the stance of the Afghan government?

  • The Afghan government has so far been kept out of US-Taliban talks.
  • Afghan President Ashraf Ghani cautioned against rushing into a deal.
  • The government prefers an agreement that is reasonable without the repetition of past mistakes.
  • The President asked the Taliban to engage with the Afghan government directly.
  • However, the Taliban maintained that without the withdrawal of international troops, there would be no progress on other issues.

What are the likely implications of US withdrawal?

For Afghanistan:

  • Withdrawal could affect the capabilities of Afghan troops in conducting effective night raids.
  • Moreover, US aerial support is crucial for Afghan ground forces.
  • Thus the withdrawal would impact Afghanistan’s capability for counter-terrorism.

For India:

  • US withdrawal would mean that it would hand over the Afghan mess to Pakistan, Russia, and China.
  • After the withdrawal, India’s two main interests would be affected – Preventing any extremist group from taking over Afghanistan and maintaining economic cooperation with the Afghan government and civil society.
  • Withdrawal of US forces would affect the Kashmir valley as terrorist outfits in the valley may feel empowered and increase its activities.

For China:

  • Afghan stability is an important factor for its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” project of expanding trade links across Asia. However, the withdrawal of US troops would be detrimental to this project.
  • Domestic security concerns that terrorism will spread across the Afghan border into China.
  • Its regional economic investments would be affected by the withdrawal.

What should be the role of India?

  • India’s position in Afghanistan is that it will not directly or publicly talk to the Taliban until it engages the Afghan government. However, considering the recent developments, it is essential that India participates in these negotiations and is not cut out of the resolution process.
  • An effective communication channel should be setup between Indian intelligence agencies and all stakeholders in Afghanistan including the Taliban. This is to ensure that Indian interests, development projects and its citizens in Afghanistan are kept secure.
  • Therefore, India must intensify its dialogue with regional and global stakeholders to ensure that engagement with the Taliban should not come at the cost of establishing a constitutional democracy, the rule of law and securing the rights of women and minorities.

What is the way forward?

  • A US-based think tank, had drawn up a peace agreement (a possible final agreement) whose major elements are:
    • An 18-month transitional government that will supervise power sharing between the Taliban and other stakeholders of the Afghan polity.
    • Extension of US assistance to Afghanistan.
    • Establish a high Ulema Council which along with the interim government, will discuss changes to the constitution.
    • Amnesty for perpetrators.
    • Taliban’s renunciation of links with terrorist organisations.
    • Release of prisoners.
    • Formation of an impartial team to enforce the draft agreement.
  • But the US government has denied any plans for an interim government in Kabul.
  • The Afghan presidential elections are going to be conducted in July, 2019 and it is unclear how the talks might affect this process.

March 5, 2020

What is the 2020 agreement that was signed between the US and the Taliban?

  • After 18 months of talks and nearly two decades of war, the Taliban and the US have signed an agreement that paves the way for peace in Afghanistan and the departure of foreign troops from the country.
  • This agreement was signed on February 29, 2020, in Doha, Qatar.
  • This comprehensive peace agreement consists of four parts:
  1. Guarantees and enforcement mechanisms that will prevent the use of the Afghanistan territory by any group or individual against the security of the US and its allies.
  2. Guarantees, enforcement mechanism and the announcement of a timeline for the withdrawal of all foreign force from Afghanistan in the presence of international witnesses,
  3. After these are done, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which is not recognised by the US as a state and is known as the Taliban, will start negotiations with Afghan sides on 10th March 2020.
  4. A permanent and comprehensive ceasefire will be an item of the agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations. The participants of these negotiations will discuss the date and modalities of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire, including joint implementation mechanisms, which will be announced along with the completion and agreement over the future political roadmap of Afghanistan.
  • These four parts are interrelated and each will be implemented as per its own agreed timeline and terms.
  • Agreement on the first two parts paves the way for the last two parts.

What are the limitations of Trump’s Afghan peace deal?

Prisoner exchange:

  • According to the US-Taliban agreement, the US will gradually withdraw its 12,000 service members in exchange for the Taliban’s commitment that it will neither aid nor harbour terrorists.
  • This agreement also focused on prisoner exchange and talks between Taliban and US-backed Afghan government.
  • As per the agreement, Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban must both release political prisoners before talks between the two sides can start on March 10 in Norway.
  • This is going to be a challenge because the Taliban reject Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration as an American puppet with little control outside the capital, Kabul.
  • The discussions are being made even harder by the prisoner swap requirement, which says that the government must release up to 5,000 Taliban fighters and the Taliban must free up to 1,000 Afghan security forces.
  • The Taliban, for a long time, has pushed for this because it would build up its ranks. However, Kabul fiercely rejects this idea.
  • The Afghan government stated that the freeing of Taliban prisoners is not under the authority of America but the authority of the Afghan government and that it would not release the prisoners if there is no progress in the peace negotiations.
  • The initiation of intra-Afghan discussions will be stalled if the Taliban insists on prisoner release first.
  • If this issue is not addressed soon, there may be an increase in the chances of escalation of violence within the country.

Resumption of violence in Afghanistan:

  • The US had had earlier said that it would sign the peace deal only after a successful seven-day reduction in violence.
  • That ended more or less successfully, leading to the US signing the peace deal with the Taliban.
  • However, now that the weeklong period is over, the Taliban had announced that it would restart operations.
  • This is expected because the peace deal did not mention anything about violence stopping indefinitely.
  • It is likely that the Taliban will continue to attack Afghan forces and innocent civilians for the time being and may use this to force the Afghan government to sign a deal that is more favourable to the insurgent group.

No minority representation:

  • Afghan women and representatives from civil society and other minority groups were not part of the US-Taliban peace talks that led to this agreement.
  • History has shown that women and minorities in Afghanistan stand to lose the most from any deal that does not include them in the negotiations.
  • The Taliban, though willing to negotiate, opposes preconditions to talks with the US and Afghanistan Government.
  • Instead of guaranteeing to protect the provisions in the Afghan Constitution that grant equality to all, the insurgent group stated that this issue could only be resolved through “consensus among Afghans”.
  • This does not guarantee the rights and freedom of these minority groups in Afghanistan.

Terming Taliban:

  • The Agreement refers to the Taliban throughout as “the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan that is not recognised by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban”.
  • This bulky nomenclature legalises the Taliban’s claim to be a government equivalent to the one in Kabul, just not the one recognised at the moment by the US.
  • When it is read along with the second part of the agreement, which binds the US not to intervene in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs, it is obvious that the Taliban is not interested in peace, but in ensuring that support for its rivals from the US is forbidden.

Why is the US-Taliban deal a setback for India?

  • Pakistan’s army, the Taliban’s biggest supporter, has for a long time, wanted to re-install a friendly Islamist regime in Kabul.
  • After the US’ withdrawal, it is estimated that the Afghan government will not have the necessary bargaining power in any intra-Afghan peace talks.
  • For India, this deal is not a positive outcome for regional peace or its relationship with the US.
  • During the recent visit by the US president, it was made clear by both sides that the shared concerns were the only things that are keeping the countries together.
  • India is not a US “ally”. Therefore, an intensification of terrorism targeting India would not violate Trump’s agreement.
  • This agreement is geo-strategically not favourable for India as Pakistan will have an ally in Taliban-led Afghanistan and India’s strategy on countering Pakistan through economic and political development of a democratic Afghanistan will become a failure because of this deal.
  • India’s past foreign policy endeavours have shown that little can be done by the Indian government to address this issue.
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