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Sunday, Sep 22, 2019

Why Trump reached out to Taliban, why he pulled back, and what next

Realism demands that India cooperate with the Afghan government, but also open a line with the Taliban

analysis Updated: Sep 10, 2019 18:42 IST
Vivek Katju
Vivek Katju
In order to attempt discerning what US President DonaldTrump may do next, it may be useful to consider his instinctive approaches to the US involvement in Afghanistan
In order to attempt discerning what US President DonaldTrump may do next, it may be useful to consider his instinctive approaches to the US involvement in Afghanistan (REUTERS)
         

Anything can happen once United States (US) President Donald Trump gets active in diplomacy’s china shop. The developments over the US-Taliban deal, ironically revealed by Trump himself in a number of tweets on September 7, once again illustrate the bewildering, if not the chaotic, manner in which the US presently conducts its foreign policy. Indeed, Trump’s Afghanistan policy is a case study in unpredictability.

In order to attempt discerning what Trump may do next, it may be useful to consider his instinctive approaches to the US involvement in Afghanistan. Trump was against continuing US military engagement in Afghanistan prior to his election. He wanted the US forces to leave the country. On becoming president, he took eight months to fashion his Afghan policy, and, then, taking personal responsibility, announced it on August 21, 2017.

Trump stressed that he had reached three basic conclusions that the US must achieve: Seek an “honourable and enduring outcome”, eschew a “rapid exit”, and acknowledge that the “security threats” that the US faced in Afghanistan and the region were “immense”. Flowing from these conclusions, Trump said that the US presence in Afghanistan would shift from a “time-based” to a “condition-based” approach, which would “integrate” all elements of US power. Trump warned Pakistan that it had “much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists”. While asking Pakistan to deny the Taliban sanctuary, he was careful to create a distance between terrorist organisations and this group, for, in this policy statement itself, he envisaged the possibility of an Afghan political settlement that would include Taliban elements.

Clearly, the US’ objective was to increase military pressure on the Taliban, including through the denial by Pakistan of safe-havens to it, so that they could be brought to the negotiating table with the Afghan government. The dire warnings to Pakistan did not work. Nor were the Afghan Security Forces, with US combat and intelligence assistance, able to push back the Taliban. The military stalemate that Trump had inherited in Afghanistan continued even as the National Unity Government (NUG) led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah frayed, and members of the Afghan political class went in different directions.

Despite occasional threats to Pakistan till early 2018, by autumn, the Trump administration abandoned almost all the elements of the August 2017 statement, save for that which had dwelt on drawing in the Taliban into a political settlement. Even here, the US gave up a fundamental position, which required the Taliban to engage the Afghan government prior to the US-Taliban talks. It became clear that the Trump administration was in a state of strategic desperation, and, in the process, was willing to let NUG swing in the wind.

More than that, Washington was also willing to overlook the fact that the Taliban had killed more than 2,300 US soldiers in Afghanistan during the course of the insurgency. It is important to recall that the US did not have any problems with the Taliban per se. Their difficulties with the group began only with its association with the al Qaeda, and its refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden after 9/11.

The 10-month-long negotiation witnessed the Taliban maintain a singular focus on the withdrawal of US forces, and a refusal to engage the Afghan government. The US accepted Taliban’s conditions, including a refusal to ceasefire in exchange for an assurance that it would not allow terrorist groups to operate from territories under its control. This was surrender.

There was obviously a push back within the US system to this surrender. Trump was tempted to preside over a diplomatic drama at Camp David to make the Taliban to directly engage the NUG and make it agree to a ceasefire. He decided not to take the risk of a Taliban rebuff, and, worse, of a terrorist attack on US soldiers by it even while its representatives were in Camp David. If they could attack US soldiers after the deal was agreed to, what would prevent them from gravely embarrassing Trump?

The issue before Trump now is if he has a real alternative to renew engagement with the Taliban after a gap? It wouldn’t seem so, unless he is willing to undertake extensive military operations against it by substantially augmenting US troop level in Afghanistan, and taking military action across the Durand Line to show Pakistan that he truly means business. This is not on the cards. Hence, the Taliban can sit pretty and creep forward at present or reduced US force levels.

This scenario is also predicated on the continuing inability of the Afghan political class to get its act together even if a credible presidential election takes place. This too is a reasonable expectation in view of the developments since the Taliban were pushed out of Afghanistan in 2001. The sad fact is that neither former President Hamid Karzai nor Ashraf Ghani has been able to demonstrate leadership to knit the country together and reconcile its many contradictions. If this has been so now, reconciling the impulses emanating from the Emirate and Islamic Republic would be supremely difficult in the future. Afghanistan’s agony would, therefore, continue.

In these circumstances, India has to adopt subtle and realistic policies to protect its interests. It should augment its cooperative arrangements with the Afghan government in power in Kabul, but also open a line with the Taliban. This is how the diplomatic game is played.

Vivek Katju is a former diplomat, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan.
The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 10, 2019 18:40 IST