The “last helicopter” is a term often used to symbolise the departure of a foreign force from an occupied land. How that helicopter departs actually denotes the status and future prospects of peace in a zone wracked by war and instability. The Afghanistan peace deal, long in the making, gives no indication that the “last helicopter” of the US and its allies will leave Afghanistan in peace and tranquility. The deal is, of course, welcome but the uncertainties inspire little confidence and thus the cautious Indian reaction is quite natural. The few details available need brief reiteration. Thirteen thousand American and other troops are to draw down to 8,500 in 135 days, while working towards full withdrawal in 14 months. The Taliban has promised not to allow territories held by it to be used by terror groups to target foreign troops. Around 5,000 Taliban prisoners will be released immediately; like the 1,000 held by the Taliban. The US is to work with the UN Security Council to remove sanctions on Taliban leaders, as the Taliban and the Afghan government negotiate a ceasefire and political settlement.
How this deal was reached is a different matter, it’s the workability that is in question. It seems less a deal and more a compromise. India’s demand that any solution be an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and an Afghan-controlled process hardly seems relevant in the emerging scene.
President Ashraf Ghani’s National Unity Government has reportedly agreed to negotiate a ceasefire and engage in an intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban. However, some reports say a prisoner exchange is not acceptable to the government, the first hiccup within 24 hours. The immediate release of prisoners will lead to a surge in the Taliban’s strength. What is still not clear is why the Taliban was reluctant about the Afghan government’s presence in the talks, and how serious the Taliban will now be in engaging with it for a ceasefire and political settlement? The US too would have benefited from Mr Ghani’s presence; the subsequent ownership of the deal would then be unquestioned. The feasibility of the Taliban seeing the back of the “last helicopter” and then reneging on the deal through a renewed full military solution can only be ignored at great risk. The US agreed to negotiate with the Taliban and accepted its demand that the Ghani government be kept out of the negotiations. Now to expect the Ghani government to accept verbatim what has been negotiated may also not be fair or prudent. The prisoner exchange is just the first of the bumps on the not so smooth road towards implementation.
That President Trump was agreeable to a time-bound drawdown was not surprising as he has an electorate to appeal to in eight months’ time. But the US strategic community was critical of the same assurance when then President Barack Obama made a similar announcement. With no laid-down linkages to the situation on ground or the fulfillment of conditions, the US could get itself into a trap. Yet, no one expects that such a deal will have everything built into it to the last point. That is why continuity in engagement is so essential. Will the Ghani government now be represented in the engagement that the US should be continuously involved in? Interestingly, the “Agreement for bringing Peace to Afghanistan” somewhat awkwardly states that it is with the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, a term the Taliban should be reasonably delighted with because it accords to it a certain legitimacy that eluded it for long. Peace deals are not always neat arrangements, especially when they are against renegade non-state organisations like the Taliban, but such deals are usually preceded by a decision on the rules of engagement for a negotiated ceasefire. In this case, many things about the end state seem to have been outlined without the takeoff point of the ceasefire being defined. The Taliban occupies a major part of Afghanistan and would not like to lose the military initiative; it will demand a ceasefire on its terms which will per force have a linkage to the other provision, the need for it to prevent the use of its territory for the targeting of foreign troops. These two issues will go hand in hand as the process proceeds ahead; a ceasefire and means of credibly monitoring it will need to be established early if anything is to be achieved.
If neat lines are to be expected, the Afghan National Army, all of 180,000 strong, should see a partial demobilization, with a merger of some Taliban forces. In the tribal and ideological complexity that makes up Afghanistan, such an arrangement is considered utopian. This is where the next bump in the road will appear. Demobilisation and rehabilitation are again complex and expensive exercises which the United Nations is adept at. Will the UN and its subsidiaries find a place in the processes which will emerge soon? The Taliban can easily play out 14 months with full cooperation to see the last US helicopter leave before it initiates civil war-like conditions to meet its aim.
The party which benefits the most will obviously be Pakistan, which has been the key interlocutor, but a relationship with the Taliban can be tricky. No doubt it will hold the key for the international community’s hopes for a full implementation of the peace deal. Although India was invited for the signing ceremony, it now has to tread a careful path. If it wishes to continue playing a role, engagement with the Taliban will need initiation, something Pakistan will ensure it scuttles before it reaches any realisation stage. India’s soft power efforts in the past have been appreciated by the Afghan people and the international community, but these also ensured that Indian consulates exist at Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Herat, through which direct engagement could be carried out along with easy visa management for travel by Afghans to India. For Pakistan this is anathema, and some pressure to wind up the consulates can be expected. The fear in India that the deal will provide enough resources for re-initiation of a hybrid conflict in Kashmir may be unfounded, on the basic premise that 30 years after the first such initiation India is a vastly different country.
For US President Donald Trump, of course, the deal comes as a boost for his electoral prospects. Yet equally the chances of the deal failing and the likely endangerment of American troops in that eventuality could be his worst nightmare.