US President Donald Trump is desperate to recall troops from Afghanistan for domestic compulsions and, for this, he appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation in September 2018. Khalilzad met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and top Afghan officials in October and subsequently led an inter-agency delegation to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.
Besides Qatar, reconciliation talks were also held in UAE in December, for which Pakistan claimed credit. The Khalilzad-led US team, the Taliban, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE took part in those talks, which ended abruptly. Although Afghan government representatives were in the UAE, they were not allowed to participate, because the Taliban refused to sit with them.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said more reconciliatory talks would be held in future and that talks centred around the removal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. He made it clear that internal matters, such as formation of an interim government, elections, ceasefire and so on, were not discussed.
After the talks, Khalilzad visited Pakistan and met Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and briefed him about the talks. Analysts claim that Khalilzad requested Bajwa to persuade the Taliban to soften their attitude so that reconciliation talks succeed. After Islamabad, Khalilzad also visited Kabul and briefed Afghan authorities about the outcome of the talks.
American troops landed in Afghanistan in December 2001, to defeat Al Qaeda and to safeguard US interests. An American general had testified before the US Congress that they had “decimated Al Qaeda.” The critics said the statement was intended to justify withdrawal of American troops from war-torn Afghanistan. However the world at large and Americans in particular must remember the horrific September 11, 2001 attacks, which were carried out by Al Qaeda and the Taliban sheltered them in Afghanistan. The announcement of intent to withdraw US troops is under domestic pressure and without considering the country’s long-term interest.
The control of the Taliban over large parts of Afghanistan is not diminishing and ill-equipped, ill-trained and dispirited Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are suffering heavy causalities and losing territories. In fact, over the last few months, fatalities have enhanced to the level that the Afghan government was forced not to publish reports of casualties.
In case the US withdraws completely, then China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan would try to enhance their influence in Afghanistan. These countries would try to increase their economic and political sway in Central Asia through Afghanistan.
President Trump’s advisers feel that the 17 years’ war, in which more than 2300 US citizens have lost their lives, is still not near any solution. The Taliban are getting assistance from various quarters, particularly from Pakistan, which wants to install a puppet regime in Kabul and considers the Taliban as a strategic asset. The present Afghan government could not achieve legitimacy as quite a few tribal groups are not part of the administration and the tribal leaders in administration are either benefiting their families or fulfilling the interests of their tribes.
US foreign policy depends on the country’s domestic policies. Trump has ordered the withdrawal of about half the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan and also withdrawal of 2,000 US troops deployed in Syria. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned as he and many Trump advisers felt that hasty withdrawal of US troops would embolden the Taliban and the present Afghan government will collapse.
Once Taliban comes to power, Islamic extremism would enhance manifold and Al Qaeda and Islamic State would proliferate. Taliban would impose Sharia law and will take the country to the primitive age. State-sponsored Islamic terrorism would surge and wide-ranging terrorist incidents would take place, not only in neighbouring countries but also in distant places like America and Europe.
Sunni and Shia-ruled countries would finance diverse terrorist outfits and they will carry out terrorist activities not only in Afghanistan but in other countries. Hence Trump should postpone his decision to withdraw troops for some more time and utilise the extended period to train and equip the ANDSF with drones and other weaponry to enable them to bombard hideouts of terrorists in Afghanistan and, particularly, in Pakistan. However, care must be taken to minimize civilian casualties.
India should not send its troops to war-ravaged Afghanistan but must enhance the number of Afghan security trainees in India. If the Taliban comes to power, it will be a tragedy for India too; the Taliban being supported by Pakistan will harm Indian projects and interests in that country.
Although Afghan leaders are showing a brave face by saying that US troops are involved in training and advice only, and ANDSF is competent to counter the Taliban and other terrorist outfits, Afghan watchers are aware about the hollowness of these claims. The withdrawal of US troops will have a calamitous effect on ANDSF and will be a great morale-booster for the Taliban.
(The author is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst. He can be contacted at email@example.com)