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EXPLAINED: How US Kept Parts Of Taliban Deal Secret And Why That's Made India Uncomfortable

Taliban fighters sit on the back of a pickup truck as they stop on a hillside in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Taliban fighters sit on the back of a pickup truck as they stop on a hillside in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Foreign Minister S Jaishankar is said to have referred to secret documents as part of the US-Taliban deal as India assesses its position vis-a-vis Afghanistan

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is reported to have referred to secret parts of the US-Taliban peace deal that was signed in February last year to underline India’s concerns stemming from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The deal paved the way for US to end its occupation of Afghanistan, but the circumstances of its retreat and the swift fall of the democratically elected government in Kabul means that it raised more questions than it answered.

Why Is India Worried?

With US in control, India had come forward to help with the Afghan reconstruction process, but the unceremonious exit of American troops, and the collapse of the government they had propped up, not only jeopardises the more than USD 3 billion in investments New Delhi made in Afghanistan but also represents a geostrategic challenge as Pakistan asserts its influence with the Taliban and China goes out of its way to woo the Islamists.

The US seemingly retains no strategic leverage in the country and its pledge to support the return of peace in an united Afghanistan have been rendered moot by the Taliban running roughshod over the Afghan government troops and the Panjshir resistance. There are no government forces now to support with “over-the-horizon" air power even as Afghan civil society stares at a reversal of democratic gains that they had come to enjoy under the US occupation.

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The return of Afghanistan to a radical regime of Islamist governance would represent a diplomatic challenge for India, not least because the Taliban top leadership includes many, like Haqqani network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani, who are known to be pro-Pakistan and anti-India. The complete Taliban takeover therefore is far from the best-case-scenario India could have expected in Afghanistan, and the manner of the US exit has raised eyebrows in New Delhi.

“There were commitments which were made by the Taliban at (Qatar capital) Doha… The US knows that best, we were not taken into confidence on various aspects of that," Jaishankar reportedly said at a recent event in the US, his reference being to classified parts of the US-Taliban peace agreement.

What Were The Terms Of The US-Taliban Deal?

Signed on the leap year day of February 29, 2020, in Doha, the wordy title of the deal says that it is an “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America".

It was a deal pushed through by the then US President Donald Trump who was eager to end the US occupation of Afghanistan ahead of the presidential elections that were slated for later that year. Although the deal did not achieve the withdrawal of US troops before the elections, it did set a timeline of 14 months following its signing for a complete withdrawal of US troops. The key takeaway for Washington was that it had got Taliban to agree that it would not allow Afghan soil to be used by “any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies".

Significantly, the deal did not involve the democratically elected Afghan government, led then by the now absent Ashraf Ghani. However, one of the pillar of the deal was that the Taliban would start, “intra-Afghan negotiations with Afghan sides". It had also spoke of a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire" as an item on the agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations.

Among other things, the deal allowed the release of combat and political prisoners “as a confidence building measure" and also spoke of a rollback of sanctions and terror designations slapped on Taliban leaders by the US and the United Nations.

But ahead of the US withdrawal, American lawmakers had expressed concern over two annexures that were part of the deal, which however were neither made public nor shared with US allies.

What Were The Secret Annexures All About?

A report in the New York Times said, citing sources, that the two secret annexures contained “a timeline for what should happen over the next 18 months (after February 29, 2020) what kinds of attacks are prohibited by both sides and, most important, how the United States will share information about its troop locations with the Taliban". After US lawmakers questioned the classified branding of these annexures, the Trump administration arranged for them to go over their contents although the general public was denied access.

With the Trump administration facing criticism over the secret terms of the deal, the US state department — it was described as having “struggled to explain why the criteria for the terms, standards and thresholds for the American withdrawal could be known to the adversary but not to the American people or allies" — said that the documents remained classified because “the movement of troops and operations against terrorists are sensitive matters".

The then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had termed the secret annexures as “military implementation documents", and it was reported that they governed aspects related to the withdrawal like when the rival parties could use force, laying down that “the Taliban are not to conduct suicide attacks, and the Americans forgo drone strikes".

But lawmakers who reviewed the secret documents said the deal envisaged no mechanism by which US officials could ascertain whether the Taliban were keeping their part of the agreement, which was a key condition of US withdrawal. The NYT report noted that details of the deal were “critical to judging whether the US is making good on its promise to leave only if conditions allow, or whether it is just getting out" of Afghanistan.

But while the US state department had sought to allay those concerns by saying there was “a robust monitoring and verification mechanism" to track Taliban’s performance on its promises, NYT reported that lawmakers who had seen the secret documents “said the specifics were so nebulous that they doubted the US retained much leverage".

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first published:October 04, 2021, 11:28 IST