At the last minute, US President Donald Trump has pulled out of a deal with the Taliban. Many across the world, other than Pakistan, the Taliban’s Arab backers and Pakistan’s “iron friend” China, will breathe a sigh of relief.
Just days before the projected signing, the Taliban took credit for two massive car bomb attacks in Kabul. An American soldier was killed. Mr Trump offered this as his reason for backing out. He also revealed that secret preparations were on to separately host Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David near Washington this week. This would have been to formally conclude an agreement, and get Mr Ghani to endorse it — against his own wishes and the wishes of most Afghans.
The Taliban had cut Kabul out from any talks. It regards as an American “puppet” any government in Afghanistan brought into being through an election process under the country’s post-Taliban constitution and given sanction by the Constitution Jirga. They want a return to their lost Islamic emirate, not an Islamic republic. This is the crucial difference between the Taliban or Pakistan era, and present-day Afghanistan.
Yet, the Trump administration had gone along, doing peace talks in secret, for which the foundation was laid during the Obama administration. From the Taliban end, the nine rounds of secret peace talks held in Qatar for nearly a year didn’t at all look like readying the country for peace. The Taliban saw no need to win hearts and minds. Bomb blasts and complex assaults by the Taliban inside Afghanistan were the order of the day for the past two years.
It was evident for some time that the US wanted to exit Afghanistan for domestic reasons, leaving behind a skeletal counter-terrorism force. This placed it on the same side as the Taliban and Pakistan. It was clear the Taliban will fill the vacuum as the Americans retreat.
On the other side were different factions of Afghanistan’s political elite, most of whom — in desperation — were trying to reach an accommodation with the Taliban or the Americans. However, if they can overcome their differences and forge political unity, they can be a potential counterweight to the Taliban.
The US-Taliban deal is off for now, but the Americans can backtrack. If Washington now gives whole-hearted backing to holding the Afghan presidential election due later this month, a new domestic Afghan dynamic in favour of republicanism can be rekindled. This would have important regional repercussions. The US was cool to the election idea because it was in dalliance with the extremists. India enjoys tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan, but has little leverage. This is because it avoided playing a political hand in deference to the US wish to do nothing that might displease Islamabad. It’s time this changed and New Delhi made its stand clear — like Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, Ankara and Islamabad do.