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In Afghanistan Theatre, US President Biden Has Limited Options—Diplomacy is His Best Bet

US President Joe Biden.  Reuters

US President Joe Biden. Reuters

Taliban had committed to cut their ties with Al Qaeda but recent statements by Afghan and US officials indicate that this has not happened.

A flurry of diplomatic activity on Afghanistan has begun, catalysed by the approaching May deadline for the US troops to leave Afghanistan under the agreement signed on 29 February last year by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder and Deputy Leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader in Doha.

The problem is that a year later, the Doha agreement is in shambles. The intra-Afghan dialogue that was supposed to begin in March finally began in September and has not made progress. Taliban had committed to cut their ties with Al Qaeda but recent statements by Afghan and US officials indicate that this has not happened. Meanwhile, violence levels in Afghanistan have risen sharply in recent months. A recent UN report indicated 3,035 civilian deaths and 5,785 injured during 2020 with the Taliban held responsible for 45 percent of the casualties.

Biden’s options

President Biden’s options are limited. He can stick to the original withdrawal date but it is a foregone conclusion that the Kabul government will not be able to last very long and the country will descend into a civil war. The option of extending the stay unilaterally means that the Taliban may resume targeting US troops, something they have refrained from since the Doha deal. A third option is to negotiate a short extension with the Taliban by offering them a share in governance in return for a reduction in violence.

Khalilzad has been asked to stay on to explore the third option and kickstart the intra-Afghan peace negotiations by suggesting that a Transition Government, including the Taliban, replace the current regime in Kabul, and the UN convene an international conference with key global and regional players and the Afghan groups—a kind of Bonn 2, somewhat reminiscent of the Bonn conference convened in November 2001 where the post-Taliban political arrangements were concluded.

Diplomacy picks up

The rationale for the US approach was spelt out in identical letters by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to President Ashraf Ghani and Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Dr Abdullah. It expressed concern about the growing levels of violence and shared the bleak US assessment that after a US withdrawal, the Taliban were likely to make rapid territorial gains unless there was a serious attempt to restart and accelerate the peace process. The new peace plan was shared by Khalilzad with Afghan leaders and Taliban in early March in Kabul and Doha respectively. It contains a roadmap to an inclusive transition government, the terms for a significant reduction in violence leading to a comprehensive ceasefire and drafting a new constitutional framework. In the larger interest, President Ghani is expected to make the sacrifice and step down. The UN has been requested to convene a Foreign Minister-level conference inviting the Afghan groups, China, India, Iran, Russia and the US to discuss a unified approach to a durable peace.

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Turkey has conveyed willingness to host the UN convened conference, possibly in April, and also a March conference between the Afghan government and leaders from Kabul and the Taliban to arrive at an agreement on the transition arrangements. The UN Secretary General has announced the appointment of veteran French diplomat Jean Arnault as his Personal Representative. Arnault was in Kabul from 2002-06, first as Deputy and then as Head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Those were the hopeful days, though by 2006, Taliban had announced their return with a spate of suicide attacks and IEDs.

Moscow added to the diplomatic activity by convening a conference of the ‘expanded troika’—China, Pakistan, the US and Russia together with Afghan leaders and the Taliban on 18 March, with intra-Afghan talks continuing on the following two days. The highlight was a joint statement by the four Special Representatives—Ambassadors Khalilzad, Wang Yu, Sadiq Mohammed and host Zamir Kabulov on the first day declaring that they “do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate” system that the Taliban had introduced. The joint statement recognised that the Afghan people desired peace, called for reduction in violence from all sides, asked the Taliban not to launch the Spring offensive and reiterated their call for a negotiated settlement. The Afghan government has reacted positively emphasising the Islamic Republic is the only inclusive and acceptable structure that can ensure equality and pluralism and accommodates the diversity of Afghanistan and provides stability. Taliban have responded, saying that peace talks should be expedited and the US should stick to its withdrawal date.

A limited consensus

However, there is a growing momentum behind the call for Ghani’s departure. Within Afghanistan, many leaders like Karzai, Qanooni, Hekmatyar, Ismail Khan, Sayyaf, amongst others, would be happy to see Ghani go. Among the international community, the US sees Ghani now as an obstacle to peace and Russia, Iran and Pakistan have always seen him as too pro-US. Ghani has responded by suggesting that he is ready to hold early elections (these are due in 2024) and hand over power to any elected government. However, the 2019 election saw an abysmal turnout of 20 per cent and the current situation is no better. Moreover, Taliban are not inclined to go the electoral route.

However, the limited consensus breaks down thereafter and Bonn 2 is not like Bonn 1. There are fundamental differences and internal changes. At Bonn 1, the four groups invited (Rome, Cyprus and Peshawar groups and the Northern Alliance) were not fighting each other; Bonn 1 only sought to set up a road map for political normalisation with these four groups in a post-Taliban Afghanistan. For Bonn 2, there are essentially two parties, Taliban and the Afghan government, who are fighting a bloody war. Taliban have gained legitimacy, expanded their presence and are militarily strong. The Kabul government is internationally recognised but has lost considerable legitimacy because of its disunity, consequent fragility and incompetence.

The most important internal factor is Afghan demographics—a median age of 18.4 years with 46 per cent of Afghan population below 15 years and another 28 per cent between 16-30 years. This large cohort has come of age post-2002 and is used to living in a conservative but open society. If the Doha agreement generated concerns among youth, women and minorities (and the Afghan government), the new proposal confirms their worst fears and they are united in not accepting an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

India’s role

Since 2002, India has undertaken an extensive economic cooperation programme at a cost of USD 3 billion. The absence of a shared border and focus on using ‘soft power’ reflects the reality that India lacks the leverage to play ‘spoiler,’ unlike Afghanistan’s other neighbours. At Bonn I, India was invited because it had been a key supporter (along with Russia and Iran) of the Northern Alliance. Today, India is invited because it has acquired the distinction of being the preferred development partner. This realisation is not lost on the Taliban either who have been supportive of India’s developmental role.

The Biden administration realises that it needs diplomacy to ensure a managed exit from Afghanistan. It needs Russia, Pakistan and Iran (as well as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar) to lean on the Taliban to agree to a short US extension; it needs Russia to lean on Ghani to make the sacrifice, and it needs the UN to come back and take over the peace process, thereby, enlarging the number of stakeholders. Once the Taliban join a transitional government, they should wind up the Doha office and move to Kabul so that future Afghan talks will be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled.

However, whether this flurry of diplomatic activity can bring lasting peace to a country that has experimented with monarchy, a socialist republic, a communist rule, an Islamic Emirate and an Islamic Republic over the last 70 years, remains difficult to predict.

This article was first published on ORF.

Rakesh Sood is a Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He has over 38 years of experience in the field of foreign affairs, economic diplomacy and international security issues.

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