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Biden’s Afghanistan plan: It’s now or never

The new Biden administration has finally declared its plan for Afghanistan and it is picking up where Trump left. In a letter to the Afghan government, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has outlined a four-step proposal that the US believes will help in accelerating the stalled peace process. These deserved to be looked at individually, to understand the fine print and gauge the possibility of their success.

The first step is a UN-called meeting between foreign ministers of countries (including Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the US) to discuss a common approach towards supporting peace. This is an important move which will ensure that all the regional countries (and the US) are on the same page towards charting their respective political, economic and developmental contributions towards Afghanistan. For a long time, India has emphasised the need for greater regional cooperation in the country and has been one of Kabul’s only allies in stressing the importance of a negotiation that is led by the Afghan government. Having India as a part of this meeting, therefore, shows the US’s acceptance about the important role New Delhi can play, as well as gives Afghanistan a reliable friend in the room, who can advocate for its best interest.

The second proposal is a draft peace agreement, that would enable the Kabul government and the Taliban to jumpstart discussions around developing the country’s future constitution, government and the terms of a ceasefire. The agreement includes a political roadmap for the creation of a transitional peace government, which shall exist temporarily until a new constitution and permanent government are formed. It provides suggestions for what the nature of the executive, legislation and judicial branches of government could be, including options for a presidential or parliamentary system of executive government, a bicameral parliament with Senators from all provinces, and a judiciary with a separate High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence. All of the different branches of government leave space for the inclusion of an unspecified number of Taliban members, thereby, setting the stage for power-sharing between elected representatives and senior members of the militant group.

The third step in the US proposal is a senior-level meeting between Kabul and the Taliban in Turkey to finalise the peace agreement. The choice of Turkey as a ‘neutral’ third party to host the meeting is interesting given that Ankara and Islamabad are close allies and have strengthened their military and defence cooperation in recent years; in addition to Turkey being highly critical [1] of India’s domestic politics. Nonetheless, the choice of Turkey being the facilitator for this intra-regional effort is likely because of its stable ties with Iran, China and Russia; the fact that it is a Muslim-majority nation; a member of NATO; and a significant donor in terms of aid and troops to Afghanistan.

The fourth and final step in Washington’s peace plan is a proposal intended to bring about a “reduction in violence” within ninety days. While a reduction in violence from the Taliban will directly mean a reduction in violence from Afghan forces, it seems highly optimistic to have such an expectation for the militant group, who have always seen a proposed ‘reduction in violence’ as an opportunity to extract leverage, rather than an opportunity to gain peace.

Blinken’s letter also includes the new administration’s intention to stick to the May 1st deadline for troop withdrawal, at least for the time being. While it intends to continue providing financial assistance to Afghanistan, Blinken vocalises the concern that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains after the withdrawal of Western troops — a fact that the Kabul government is well aware of.

An extension of the US withdrawal date amounts to a betrayal of the Doha withdrawal agreement — in the eyes of the Taliban — signed in February 2020, as Washington had promised a complete withdrawal of forces. The US’s counter argument is that troop withdrawal was based on the condition that the Taliban would end its ties with al-Qaeda and other such groups that threaten Afghanistan, which the Taliban by no standard have done. In fact, since the signing of the Doha agreement, Taliban violence has been higher than historical norms, with the Afghan government getting ready for a ruthless ‘spring offensive’ by the group. The lack of a deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban in addition to the absence of US and foreign troops, could potentially, in a few weeks, tip the country over the edge, making returning to the negotiating table all the more challenging and unlikely.

The Biden administration’s plan for Afghanistan reflects the urgency with which the US is looking for a way out, without giving up on any of the gains it has painstakingly made over the years. Its sharp wording and threats of sticking to the withdrawal date pressurise the Ghani government on moving ahead quickly with reconciliation, with the present peace proposal as its only option. There remains a big question mark on how successful the new initiative could be, given the deep divisions in the Ghani government, divergence between Kabul and the Taliban’s idea of governance, conflicting interests of regional nations and a US citizenry desperate for withdrawal. Not to mention decades of mistrust between both sides and escalating violence makes it very difficult to imagine a situation where incumbent elected officials in Afghanistan would give up their position and allow the Taliban into an interim government.

As for India, while it is happy to be a part of the regional consortium of nations charting Afghanistan’s future, it is likely to remain unconvinced about the proposed peace plan for one simple reason: An interim government or a power sharing government, gives some power to the Taliban. Which is just as good as the Pakistan military establishment calling the shots. For New Delhi, this has always been, and always will be, unacceptable. It is high time the US realise that as well.