The United States may never wish to see a re-enactment of the scenes of the “last helicopter” again. April 30, 1975 was the day when the final evacuation of Saigon took place after America’s “defeat” in Vietnam, with chaotic scenes and the proverbial last helicopter flying out from the US embassy’s rooftop. Will the military involvement in Afghanistan, America’s longest foreign war (18 years and counting) end in similar chaos? The US can continue to stay put and elongate its expensive military deployment without any hope of a final victory, or strike a deal to pull out and leave Afghanistan to its fate. A renewed surge to make another military effort to defeat shadowy adversaries does not appear an option. US President Donald Trump probably gave directions to his chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad which dwelt somewhere in between; that is to draw down and leave a minimum number of troops, pulling the rest home to project delivery on his campaign promise, and exploiting that for his 2020 campaign. It was probably hoped that leaving a force behind would contribute somewhat to US credibility, of not having ditched its Afghan allies and retain face for any future such commitments.
Zalmay Khalilzad negotiated with the Taliban over the past one year, and with more focus through the last four months. However, the directives fed to him, the ground situation in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s apparent confidence of negotiating from a position of strength all proved to be more than challenging. His efforts led to some kind of a deal in the offing that would leave a rump US military force after withdrawal from at least five military bases over 135 days, with promises that the Taliban would not target the withdrawing forces, civilians or the Afghan National Army (ANA), and would sever its ties with the Al Qaeda. National security adviser John Bolton was against any such deal, while secretary of state Mike Pompeo was uncertain and Zalmay Khalilzad appeared to have little idea of what the strategic need of the time was. The deal, the full details of which are yet to be revealed, appeared to be dodgy. Two things stood out from what is known about the draft. First, that the rump strength of US troops would be insufficient to withstand the Taliban reneging on its promise and attempting to seek full control. Second, the future of the ANA, close to 200,000 men and women under arms, appeared as elusive as that of the Afghan government of national unity. In addition, the moment the Taliban stuck to its strategy of using violence to pressure US decision-making, it was almost certain that any commitment on abjuring violence during the partial withdrawal process would remain only on paper. The Taliban appeared to overplay its card and gave President Trump the final reason to call of the draft deal once Kabul was struck by a terror attack, leaving 11 civilians and a US serviceman dead.
President Trump appeared to be unmindful of the sentiment involved in inviting representatives of a declared terror organisation to Camp David to negotiate the finalisation of the withdrawal deal. Even the timing was ominous, two days before the 18th anniversary of 9/11. John Bolton’s pushback probably prevailed, although Mike Pompeo had also stated that he was unwilling to support the negotiated draft deal. As a face-saver, the US has said that it is not averse to returning to the negotiations. Where does this leave the situation in the region?
While the continued American presence in Afghanistan stands to India’s advantage, Pakistan, the chief intermediary, may not be too unhappy either. Under severe pressure from the Financial Action Task Force and reeling under a complete economic meltdown, a potential continuation of the negotiation process adds to its strategic status. That may have diluted to some degree once the deal had been signed. A push towards another re-negotiation may not take place for some time, and Pakistan’s relevance would remain intact even as it seeks traction on the issue with the Taliban. The threatened usage of Afghan fighters against the Indian Army in Kashmir once the US pulls out most of its presence remains in imagination only. It would be good to remember that 2019 is a far cry from 1989-90, when the Afghan mujahideen entered Kashmir through a relatively porous Line of Control.
There is talk of a next option to break the impasse and that revolves around the employment of a multinational force under the UN flag with a Chapter 7 mandate. The latter authorises the UN forces so deployed to employ force to enforce the peace. However, it may well be argued that this was also considered for Syria at one time. However, neither does the UN have the funds for such a deployment nor the combined military capability to guarantee any kind of stabilisation. The US commitment towards the funding of UN operations has never had a very good record either. Past experience shows that such commitments under Chapter 7 are rarely successful. Bosnia and Somalia are two such examples. If such an arrangement is at all sought, the US pressure on India for a commitment towards the provision of troops will be intense. India has maintained all along that deploying its troops under the UN flag is something that is always acceptable to it. There are straws in the wind that the United States could adopt a very positive stance on J&K in return. These are not deliverables and India should never fall for such temptations because no binaries are involved here.
The situation in Afghanistan will remain in flux and even more complex than before. President Trump’s stance on his quest for electoral advantage will depend much upon the manner in which the Taliban approaches the issue in the future, especially with respect to the coming Afghan election on September 28. President Ashraf Ghani is the front-runner in this election, but the Taliban had hoped that its deal with the US would postpone the election. A series of car bombs in Kabul and elsewhere in the very near future may seriously upset any prospects for peace in the immediate future. The Taliban is not exactly known for any circumspection when it comes to dealing with its adversaries. For us in India, the option of working towards a rapprochement with the Taliban, seeking relevance through involvement with any future peace process and looking towards any kind of military commitment, with the UN or otherwise, are issues which will occupy the minds of policymakers in the near future.
The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.