AS in the case of Donald Trump’s speech in Ahmadabad, so too with the US-Afghan Taliban agreement, the text of the agreement does not appear on the website of the White House or the State Department. There is only a fact sheet on the White House website which gives no details of the agreement. The latter’s contents are, however, known.
Similarly, the text of the agreement that Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reached with President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah has not been published. Instead, there is what can be termed a Nato fact sheet which states in part: “Recent progress on peace has ushered in a reduction of violence and paved the way for intra-Afghan negotiations between a fully inclusive Afghan national team and the Taliban to reach a comprehensive peace agreement”. There is no mention of the president and CEO having a role in putting this national team together. And there is no mention of the prisoner exchange that it has now transpired is a fundamental condition insofar as the Taliban are concerned.
We took umbrage at the fact that in his trilingual speech at the signing ceremony, Ghani said he would ask the Taliban to explain the relationship with Pakistan. But the noteworthy point was that he would spend the next seven days consulting or summoning a Loya Jirga to frame the government’s negotiating strategy and the demands he would make of the Taliban, the first of which would be a ceasefire. It seems he desperately wanted to believe that he had the space to be able to do so.
The split in Kabul permits for no united front.
What is the truth? The text of the US-Taliban agreement is clear. The American withdrawal based largely on logistic considerations will be in two parts: a reduction to 8,500 troops in 135 days and a complete withdrawal in 14 months in return for a ‘strong’ commitment by the Taliban to not allow Al Qaeda or other anti-American forces to operate on Afghan territory. Implicit in this is that the Taliban would be the dominant force and could therefore deliver. The Nato statement does say that “the Alliance and its partners in the Resolute Support Mission will implement conditions-based adjustments, including a reduction to our military presence” but that makes no sense when the date for completing the withdrawal has been agreed upon.
As regards the prisoner exchange that the Taliban insist must precede an intra-Afghan dialogue, this was one subject raised in Trump’s first conversation (March 3) with top Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, the transcript of which has not been placed on the White House website. The Taliban spokesperson reporting this conversation said that “Trump told Baradar that he would soon have US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speak to Ghani” in order to remove “the barriers against the inter-Afghan talks”.
Since then, the top US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad has been talking to Afghan leaders in Kabul urging them to put the “country first” and to ensure that things move ahead including prisoners’ release. Ghani is trying to resist. Speaking at an Afghan National Army (ANA) function, he said that he would put off building schools or hospitals, but would ensure that he could pay the soldiers for the next two years.
This was of course whistling in the wind. He had only $128 million in his budget for building schools and possibly a similar amount for hospitals; barely enough to cover a week’s salaries for the ANA and other parts of the 320,000 strong Afghan National Defence Security Forces. At least 53 per cent of his own budget is financed by foreign donors.
As if this were not enough, the split in Kabul permits for no united front. Both Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah (who claims that he and not Ghani won the election) have scheduled the inauguration of their governments on March 9. Both have drawn up lists not only of local leaders, but also foreign dignitaries who are to be invited. At the time of writing (March 6), one did not know if either or both intend to invite Pakistan and what our response would be, but it is reasonable to conjecture that most foreign dignitaries would choose to stay away from what is bound to be the prelude to chaotic conditions in Kabul and in the provincial capitals theoretically still under the central government’s control.
There is disquiet in Washington in both Republican and Democrat circles and within the foreign policy establishment. Comparisons have been made with the withdrawal from Vietnam, but for Trump supporters, this is a fulfilment of his pledge to disentangle the US from foreign lands where there is only peripheral or no American economic interest involved. That this will help Trump get re-elected is taken as a given. He may be defeated by the impact Covid-19 has on the American economy, but that is a different story.
One thing is certainly based on Trump’s statements before and after the agreement: even while he will insist on fulfilling his pledges to the Taliban, he will not continue financial assistance to Afghanistan beyond a limited period — one conjecture is a year after the complete withdrawal. US allies will do likewise. Thereafter, the responsibility should, in his view, be that of Afghanistan’s neighbours including Russia, China, Pakistan and the Central Asian states, none of whom have the resources required.
What should Pakistan do? Focus on completing the fencing of our border and, to the extent possible, insulate ourselves from the chaos that is bound to come. The Taliban, it is feared, will, as they consolidate their hold on southern and eastern Afghanistan, adopt an unwise victor’s attitude and thus perhaps drive ethnic minorities towards the resurrection of the Northern Alliance as one way to protect the fiefdoms their leaders have created in the last 20 years. Even if the Taliban act more wisely, economic privation is bound to come and create the unrest and the economic refugees that we must try to protect ourselves from.
The writer is a former foreign secretary, and currently head of IoBM’s Global and Regional Studies Centre.
Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2020