US rams down Taliban pact. Will Afghans throw up?

US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (L) called on former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Kabul, Feb, 20, 2020

The manner in which the Trump administration is ramming down the Afghan throat a peace settlement is disconcerting. Delhi’s silence is more so. One shudders to think that comprador elements in the Indian establishment could be silently collaborating with the US project, in the shadow of upcoming Namaste Trump. 

Neither the Indian political leadership nor the ‘deep state’ seems to grasp that the geopolitics of the South Asian region is transforming with far-reaching consequences. 

Events are moving in a torrential flow, navigated by the US-Pakistani compass. With Pakistani help, the Trump administration has secured a near-optimal deal with the Taliban. 

The deal calls for negotiations between Afghans to start next month, an eventual countrywide cease-fire and a commitment from the Taliban not to harbour terrorist groups, while setting a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. 

A senior US official claimed that the agreement for a seven-day “reduction in violence” is “very specific” and covers Afghan government forces, and, importantly, Taliban has committed to a halt in roadside and suicide bombings as well as rocket attacks.

The “reduction in violence” will commence tomorrow, but earlier today, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo disclosed that the pact will be inked on February 29, which suggests Washington’s growing trust in the Taliban. 

Pompeo’s announcement comes immediately after a stunning op-ed by the deputy head of the Taliban (dreaded leader of Haqqani network), Sirajuddin Haqqani in the New York Times, the flag carrier of the Washington establishment, vowing that his fighters are “fully committed” to the “reduction in violence” deal. 

The Haqqani network takes the cue from Islamabad and Sirajuddin’s opinion-piece (which was highlighted by the Voice of America later) signals that Islamabad wants the “reduction in violence” pact to be displayed on the ground. Indeed, Sirajuddin’s piece also signifies his metamorphosis from a branded terrorist to a political figure, which is how most insurgencies end. 

Washington is well aware that Haqqani group was responsible for terrorist attacks on the Indian diplomatic establishments in Afghanistan. But today US self-interest dictates that Sirajuddin’s  mainstreaming in Afghan political life and a potential elevation eventually to a leadership role at the national level, is useful and necessary, since he can deliver peace. 

As for Pakistan, it can rest assured that a regime in Kabul with Sirajuddin in a commanding role will be amenable and never play footsie with Indians.  

Ironically, on a parallel track, Washington also finessed the rejectionist stance of the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani at a joint meeting on February 15 with Pompeo, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper and the chief negotiator with the Taliban Zalmay Khalilzad on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. 

What offer the Americans made to Ghani which he couldn’t refuse we do not know yet, but he has overnight turned into a believer and enthusiastic supporter of the “reduction in violence” pact between the Trump administration and Taliban. 

It is entirely conceivable that Ghani’s next move after the Munich appeasement on return to Kabul — announcement of the results of last year’s presidential election — would have tacit US approval. 

Unsurprisingly, the Afghan opposition has roundly condemned Ghani’s move. Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah is threatening to form a parallel government.  

The former Afghan President Hamid Karzai also lashed out at the so-called international community for prompting Ghani to rig the election result. In a statement on February 19, Karzai said, “The process that was imposed on our people under the name of ‘elections’ was not a national process and was in contrast to the values of democracy.” 

He rejected the election results and stated that election process fundamentally serves foreign agendas, which aim at weakening Afghanistan’s national sovereignty and creating division among the people so that “foreigners can implement their plans.” 

Nonetheless, interestingly, the UN and the European Union lost no time to congratulate Ghani on his election victory (here and here). This would suggest, again, Washington’s confidence that the anti-Ghani opposition leaders — some of whom are in CIA payroll, in fact — will ultimately accept the fait accompli.

But Karzai further responded with a tweet: “As was feared, unfortunately, the wrong decision to hold elections and misconduct in the process caused divisions threatening further instability. Now it is upon us, the Afghan people, to protect our homeland from the negative consequences, steadfastly work for peace and foil foreign designs against our unity, integrity and sovereignty.” 

Later, when Khalilzad who is camping in Kabul called on Karzai on a mission to pacify him, the latter tweeted: 

“Former President Hamid Karzai met Mr Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan’s Reconciliation, & Amb. Ross Wilson on Wednesday. The former President emphasised the following: Contradictory remarks by the international institutions…involved in the elections are a clear sign of external efforts to divide the Afghan people and weaken the country. b) Strong US-Afghan relations are possible only when the US proves its good intentions through active support for a peaceful, united and sovereign Afghanistan.”   

Evidently, feelings are running high. (See, an excellent  commentary, here, by the think tank Afghan Analysts Network on the rigged Afghan presidential election.) But Pompeo’s announcement today setting the date for the signing of the “reduction in violence” pact underscores that Washington is confident of steamrolling the anti-Ghani political forces drawn from the non-Pashtun ethnic communities. 

In essence, the US is playing the “Pashtun card” — opting for the restoration of Pashtun dominance to stabilise Afghanistan, which has of course been a historical reality. 

But there is a significant section of enlightened Pashtuns and the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek nationalities who feel marginalised and let down. They had expectations for a future for their country as a modern, moderate, plural and truly independent state. 

They would be apprehensive that the US-sponsored settlement would put Pakistan in the driving seat in Kabul eventually. They would have no reservations about integrating the Taliban as such but through a transparent process of inter-Afghan dialogue. An interim government would have met the purpose ideally. 

Quite obviously, the recent 4-day visit by the UN Secretary General António Guterres to Pakistan took place in the above backdrop where Washington is grooming the UN to navigate Afghanistan’s transition. 

Washington encourages Guterres to prioritise Pakistan’s goodwill and cooperation for the sake of the success of the fateful UN mission in Afghanistan. His highly controversial remarks on Kashmir and Modi government’s anti-Muslim policies (while on a visit to Pakistan last week) fall into perspective. (here and here)

He didn’t speak flippantly. His chastising remarks were intended to put Delhi on the defensive. Guterres hinted probably that India cannot afford to be a “spoiler” in Afghanistan. You don’t throw stones from glass houses,  after all.