The US Government and the Taliban signed a landmark peace deal on the 29th February this year. There are two main strands of this Agreement. One is a clear cut withdrawal plan of the US forces from Afghanistan. In the first phase, the troop levels were to be reduced to 8600 in 135 days and full withdrawal was to take place in 14 months. The US Government was also to close five of its military bases within the first 135 days. The second part of the deal called for certain preconditions involving the cooperation of the local actors. First, was the initiation of the intra Afghan dialogue on the 10th of March in Oslo Norway and the second, was the release of prisoners by the Kabul government and the Taliban. 5000 Taliban prisoners in exchange of 1000 Afghan officials in Taliban captivity.
No one expected the peace process to be a smooth one. The first hurdle appeared. when the Afghan peace talks did not take place. The Taliban did not accept the composition of the official negotiating team. Their rationale was that they wanted a meaningful discussion and not just meeting for the sake of meeting. The second obstacle came, when initially the Kabul government refused the prisoner exchange. They were upset that their consent was not sought before this concession was announced to the Taliban. When nudged by the Americans they proceeded on snail pace to release the prisoners. Approximately 900 Taliban have been exchanged for 300 Kabul officials so far. Taliban regret that no high profile prisoners have been released and this betrays a lack of trust. Thirdly, the political system in Kabul has proven to be dysfunctional. Elections were held in Afghanistan in 28 September after several false starts. The results were further delayed because of disputed votes. When the results were finally announced on 18 February, Ashraf Ghani had won a thin majority. His chief opponent Abdullah Abdullah called foul and rejected the results. Both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah had themselves inaugurated as Presidents of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan on the same date. US Secretary of State Pompeo visited Kabul and tried to reason with both Afghan leaders. Finding them intractable, he announced an aid cut of one billion dollars. Seeing no way out of the imbroglio, both Ghani and Abdullah arrived at a power sharing formula, whereby Abdullah would have 50 per cent share in running the government and would be leading the peace talks with the Taliban. In the previous elections too Abdullah had rejected the results until both he and Ashraf Ghani were prodded by US Secretary of State John Kerry to form a Unity Government with Abdullah as the chief executive. This time he would be called the executive prime minister. Fourthly, the levels of violence in Afghanistan haven’t gone down. The Taliban have enhanced their attacks on the government forces and the IS Khorasan chapter has also jumped into the fray. One particularly grisly attack on Dasht-i-Barchi maternity clinic in Kabul left dozens killed and injured including newborns left everyone stunned. Although the attack has not been claimed by any group but is most likely the handiwork of the IS. An earlier attack on a Sikh Gurdwara could quite also possibly have the fingerprints of this shadowy organization. The Taliban have killed the police chief in Khost and attacked the Afghan National Directorate of Security in Ghanzni. The Kabul Government has taken this as the beginning of the Spring Offensive and have also declared war.
The American commanders are in a quandary about the draw down. Commander CENTCOM Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. says he has not received guidance from higher-ups to reduce the American military footprint below 8,600. In any case his advice is no further reduction in troops unless there is some kind of surety that the Taliban will honor their part of the peace deal.Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has also expressed similar sentiments i.e. the complete withdrawal depended upon the Taliban living up to commitments to reduce violence, cutting ties with al-Qaida and fighting ISIS. In his view, the next crucial step is the intra-Afghan talks in which all factions, including the Taliban, are to negotiate a road map for their country’s future.
Meanwhile the Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad, the Afghan born US Special Representative or Afghan Reconciliation (SRAR) has resumed efforts to revive the peace process. His mandate is to seek support for an immediate reduction in violence, accelerated timeline for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, and cooperation among all sides in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan. Early in May he traveled to Doha, Qatar to meet the Taliban. He then went to India to get their point of view, which incidentally was a repeat of their allegations against Pakistan. It appears that the Indians see their investment in Afghanistan going down the drain and would like to divert international attention towards Pakistan. During his visit to Pakistan, Khalilzad was assured of all possible help in moving the peace process forward.
If the US government wants to leave Afghanistan on schedule there is a lot of ground to cover and there is too little time for it. The American presidential elections are in any case around the corner. If they remain stuck and if in the unlikely event they have to resort to enhancing force levels than the Afghan peace processes would be irrevocably delayed. The Taliban have piled up the pressure and renewed attacks on the government forces and installations and declared that Indians have been a traitor to their cause. This is bound to cause consternation not only in the Indian camp but also among the Americans, who would like India to be playing a larger role in Afghanistan.