The US-Taliban agreement, signed in Doha on February 29, is historic. It may just lead to peace in Afghanistan after 40 years of unremitting warfare, but that is a prospect that cannot be said to be in sight since nothing is yet known about the shape of the intra-Afghan talks that is expected to ensue from the Doha deal, also described as America’s race to the exit. The agreement also goes to show that yet another empire has gone down in Afghanistan, after the British and the Soviet.
Why don’t invaders succeed in Afghanistan is a fascinating question. The outlines of a possible answer may lie in the fact that the landlocked country, with its harsh terrain, does not have enough resources (though potential hydrocarbon reserves have been spoken of) to keep imperialists incentivised for long.
That is why they have come for geopolitical compulsions and have cut and run once those lose their salience. In 1842, the British had been chased out militarily but retained enough influence for 67 years after that to have their foreign policy goals met. This they did by playing the right kind of politics. It is to be seen if America attempts something similar.
The difference between the Soviet departure in 1989 and the American promise of departure now is that when Moscow departed Kabul, it was able to put in place a political compact leading to a short-lived governmental arrangement, no matter how shaky, under the jihadi groups which had fought it, though these people did not know how to rule and brought chaos to the country due to vicious internal warfare.
On the other hand, the US under President Donald Trump is just upping and going. It is leaving the political groups in the country, which have enjoyed political power or privilege since 2001 (when the Taliban had been militarily ejected by the US forces backed by an Afghan military faction), to their own devices, merely urging them to engage in intra-Afghan talks, with the Taliban holding the whip hand. It is anyone’s guess where this may lead.
It may be in America’s interest, and that of its allies, including principal regional ally India, to continue supporting the people of Afghanistan and their government with badly needed aid. This may help moderate the Taliban, who may now be expected to call the shots and dominate other political trends. Perhaps this will help keep Afghanistan on its version of the democratic track.
India can have a role to play in this if in the changed context it is able to persuade all Afghans, including the Taliban, that its friendship is for the people of Afghanistan and not any particular political dispensation. Only such an outlook on India’s part can keep Afghanistan out of Pakistan’s pernicious grip even when the Taliban are in command.
New Delhi could have chosen to engage the Taliban earlier and was short-sighted not to do so. It labored under the pre-conceived notion of the Taliban being terrorists principally because it had been harboured by Pakistan. A stiff dose of realism is now called for.