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Thursday 2 April 2020

Peace Will Elude Afghanistan When US Pulls Out

The US may not believe reducing its troops will make the Taliban crave peace, but it couldn't care if the pullout jeopardises India's efforts to rebuild the war-ravaged rocky country

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Satya Pal Singh
Satya Pal Singhhttps://www.sirfnews.com/
Former senior editor at The Hindustan Times, has worked with Right Impact Media Inc, KRIBHCO, The National Herald and United News of India

The US-Taliban deal, aimed at ending the two-decades-old internecine war in Afghanistan, that took tens of thousands of lives, is a major development that is believed to bring peace in Afghanistan, provided the Taliban meets its commitments, foremost of them being putting an end to its terror activities, in league with the other dangerous, killer outfits, and not showing “bad faiths” in talks that will proceed from here to bring in “an era of comprehensive peace”. The US is committed to reducing the number of its troops to 8,600 from 13,000 within 135 days of signing the deal, on the condition that the Taliban sticks to the terms of the deal and facilitates the peace process.

President Donald Trump says that American troops had been killing terrorists in Afghanistan “by the thousands” and now it was “time for someone else to do that work and it will be the Taliban and it could be surrounding countries… the Taliban had been trying to reach an agreement with the US for a long time. The Taliban wants to do something to show we’re not all wasting time… If bad things happen, we’ll go back with a force like no-one’s ever seen.”

Peace no priority of Taliban

While the US is keen on getting out of the Afghan crisis, with the home pressure mounting as Trump faces an election in a few months from now, the Taliban too know that with the US presence in Afghanistan, their recognition and their desire to assert themselves will remain in the doldrums.

In the years gone by, the Taliban have been globally perceived as a criminal, cruel entity, trying to assert their presence merely by terror attacks that do nothing except shedding blood.

Does that mean the Taliban want to wean themselves away from ghastly terror acts and are willing to participate in the process of reconstruction of Afghanistan, a nation impoverished and tragically battered by endless conflicts and foreign entanglements? Since 1978, Afghanistan has been in a state of continuous internal conflict and foreign interventions.

The former president Hamid Karzai became the first-ever democratically elected head of state of Afghanistan on 7 December 2004. The current president is Ashraf Ghani, since 29 September 2014. The Taliban say they seized power “illegitimately”.

Why major leeway to Taliban?

Neither the US, nor the Afghan or Taliban officials, have called the agreement “a peace deal.” But in Afghanistan, cautious optimism is surfacing because of the “reduction in violence”, which is said to have facilitated the signing of the deal. Though the Taliban have been increasingly controlling more territory, yet they have failed to capture major urban centres.

The US and the Taliban now accept that neither side in the war is capable of an outright military victory. So, in a major shift in its old policy, the US agreed that the Taliban may talk to them directly without first discussing the issues with the Afghan government, which the insurgents dismiss as “illegitimate”. Now, the deal has been possible with the Taliban agreeing to sever the links with al-Qaeda.

Islam looms large, not peace

The deal now opens the door to separate, wider talks between the militants and other Afghan political leaders, including government figures. This deal now opens the door to separate, wider talks between the militants and other Afghan political leaders, including government figures. There has to be a reconciliation between the Taliban’s insistence on “Islamic Emirate” and the democratic modern Afghanistan that has been created since 2001.

But will the modern groups, including women, all looking for a liberal environment in the country, accept that? Or, will the norms of democracy find a place in the Taliban’s scheme of things? Intra-Afghan talks will have to address those basic, but very ticklish issues. In a major obstacle, the Taliban want 5,000 of their prisoners released before the talks begin, which the Afghan government is not willing to do.

Trump has already warned the Taliban against showing “bad faith” in the talks. It is quite possible that the US will stay on beyond the time of its promised departure if no settlement is reached due to the Taliban’s’ intransigence.

In fact, returning from their “isolation”, the Taliban want to turn the country into what they believe would be the world’s “purest Islamic country”, a chaste interpretation of sharia. Presently, the supreme law of the land is the Constitution of Afghanistan. But what was life like under the Taliban when they ruled via the sharia law? They took away people’s basic liberties, banned many things, including education for girls, make-up, kite-flying, even films and much more.The leaders of this extremist Islamic group have been fighting to seize power in Afghanistan.

India firm to stay in Afghanistan

The American withdrawal, brought about by a long-drawn, persistent haggling, is being presented as an unquestionable indication of peace returning not only to Afghanistan but also to the region as a whole, with promised counter-terrorism initiatives being the key base of this agreement. Though India has been a key stakeholder in the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan, yet its worries are not going to end with the signing of this deal that is limited to the withdrawal of US troops in phases from this war-torn Central Asian Islamic country.

That our ambassador to Qatar attended the signing of the landmark peace deal, making it the first time that New Delhi officially attend an event involving the Taliban, leaves some indication that the Taliban is finally realizing the importance of India as a major stake-holder in any peace process in the region. But let’s not forget that the Taliban is a brutal, fundamentalist religious group that hates India.

New Delhi is well aware that Indian nationals in Afghanistan have, in the past. become the target of the Taliban Haqqani network and the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist organizations that receive strong support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. If the Taliban’s’ thinking about India is now changing, even if in small degrees, as some analysts believe, it will not only be good for Afghanistan, but also for India and the Taliban.

But how dependable are the Taliban, is a big question that is troubling Indian minds today. Many still believe that going by the basic priorities and the intention of the Taliban, complete withdrawal of the US troops will give rise to renewed violence in Afghanistan. But the turn of events is to be seen. However, for globally strategic and security reasons, India will continue to a helping entity for Afghanistan, despite the problems it perceives today.

Persecution left just 1,000 Indian-Afghans

Who will have faith in the basic Talibanese core of hatred and animus for Hindus? As of 1990, the population of Afghans of Indian origin was roughly 45,000, who were mostly the descendants of migrants from the Punjab region. They settled down in various parts of Afghanistan, such as Jalalabad and Kabul.

However, many left Afghanistan after the Taliban came to power in 1996, mainly due to their persecution and harsh restrictions imposed on them, leaving just about 1,000 people. Since the Taliban didn’t allow India’s official representation in Afghanistan, no voices were raised against the harassment of these Hindu and Sikh communities.

And the worst came in April 2001 when the Taliban issued an edict essentially requiring Hindu males to wear ‘tilak’ on their foreheads and were barred from wearing salwar kameez, white turban and were forced to wear black caps as identification marks. Similarly, Hindu women were forced to drape themselves in yellow dresses and wear iron necklaces. Hindus were ordered also to display yellow flags on their houses and were not allowed to reside in the houses where the Muslims lived.

Yet India remains steadfast in commitment to rebuild Afghanistan

Since India doesn’t have its security apparatus in Afghanistan, its estimated 3,000 Indian nationals, who work for reconstruction companies, international aid agencies or are employees of the Indian government working at its diplomatic missions, remain under threat of Taliban-guided terrorist attacks. New Delhi’s constant aid for Kabul has carried no weight on the psyche of the Taliban. As part of its humanitarian mission, India established field clinics and a children’s hospital and provides midday-meals to about 2 million Afghan schoolchildren. The 217 km India-built Delaram-Zaranj Highway has given a viable alternative route for duty-free movement of goods through the Chahabar port in Iran to Afghanistan.

Road building has been a prominent component of India reconstruction aid. Over 1,000 km of roads have already been built, but the hallmark project of the Indian aid effort remains a majestic domed edifice, built for the Afghan Parliament, costing over $125 million. Besides this, goes the help in strengthening Afghan institutions and its human resource facilities. Scholarships are provided to Afghan citizens and the public servants are granted access to government training institutions in India. Above that, the govt provides scholarships to more than 1,000 Afghan students per year.

Pashtuns from Kabul to Kandahar feel overawed by the widespread Indian support in rebuilding the Afghan economy and society. Also in place is the Indo-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement that allows India to train and equip Afghan security forces.

Pakistan’s ISI masterminded the 2008 attacks on the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan that were carried out by Lashkar and the Haqqani network, that killed 58 people and wounded many more. In 2009, a second attack on the Indian embassy killed 17 people. In 2010, six Indian construction workers and several Indian doctors were killed in terrorist attacks on two Kabul guesthouse often frequented by Indians.

But a rogue Pakistan never feels ashamed. It has been accusing India of having a large number of consulates in Afghanistan that “launch its covert operations against Pakistan.”

Afghans under prolonged foreign domination

And what fate did the Afghans have? First, the Soviet Union intervened in support of the Afghan communist government in its conflict with anticommunist Muslim guerrillas during the 1978-92 Afghan War and remained there until mid-February 1989. The fighting continued for about 10 years. From 15 May 1988, the fatigued Soviet troops started leaving Afghanistan. This continued until 2 February 1989. It was only by 15 February 1989 that last of the Soviet troops left Afghanistan.

Supported by the United Kingdom, the US invaded Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks on some key American targets in late 2001, in which 3000 people were killed. The invasion was meant to dismantle al-Qaeda and deny it a safe base of operations in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power, though at that time it controlled 90 per cent of the country. The US invasion became the first phase of the War in Afghanistan. US President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden and expel al-Qaeda.

The Taliban declined to extradite him and ignored demands to shut down terrorist bases and hand over other terrorist suspects too. Thus, an enraged US launched Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001, with support from the UK. They were later joined by other forces, including the Northern Alliance troops. The invaders rapidly drove the Taliban from power by December 17, 2001, and built military bases near major cities across the country. Most al-Qaeda and Taliban members escaped to neighbouring Pakistan or retreating to rural or remote mountainous regions during the Battle of Tora Bora.

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