India heaves a sigh of relief as Trump calls off peace talks
US President Donald Trump’s shock announcement that he had called off the peace negotiations with the Taliban brings the region back to where it had started. Apart from Pakistan, all other powers in the region have collectively breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
India, which had been virtually out in the cold in the talks, sees more regional stability in the loss of the deal rather than in its completion. The deal itself was seen in New Delhi as a withdrawal agreement rather than a peace deal. This sentiment was echoed by many in the region – the Afghan government itself and almost all of the Central Asian republics. Moscow, which hosted its own track of peace talks with the Taliban (with two meetings in February and May), is the other power that believes making a deal with the Taliban would bring peace to Afghanistan and keep Islamic State at bay.
India’s decision to strip Article 370 in J&K, while always on the Modi government’s agenda, was triggered by the prospect of increased regional instability once the Pakistan-Taliban-US deal came into being. Top level sources told TOI that it wasn’t just the Trump-Imran meeting or the “mediation” that spooked India.
The US attempt to whitewash the Taliban as it headed for the exit would do two things – plunge Afghanistan back into a civil war and enable Pakistan to move its jihadis towards India, particularly Kashmir. The government also feared that a post-Soviet situation could return to Afghanistan, and spill over into Kashmir. In the past 18 years, no Indian government has begun talks with the Taliban as a legitimate actor, resisting many calls to do so.
Trump’s announcement came on the day foreign ministers of Pakistan, China and Afghanistan were meeting in Islamabad to work out future plans after the US-Taliban peace agreement. This development has been the hardest blow to Pakistan and, by extension, China.
In the past few months, Pakistan has enjoyed growing salience in the west, as Islamabad was seen to be “delivering” the Taliban to the negotiating table, starting with releasing Taliban’s co-founder Mulla Baradar from prison to conduct the talks in Doha. Pakistan has maintained that keeping Taliban in the power structure in Kabul would be key to peace. Taliban, whose primary mentor and sponsor is Pakistan, had refused to talk to the elected government.
Pakistan has used its putative role in the Afghan peace process to push its pressure tactics on Kashmir. In recent weeks, Pakistan has used the nuclear bogey to paint a spectre of a flashpoint between India and Pakistan which it said could affect a peace deal in Afghanistan. Trump’s announcement removed that false leverage from Islamabad.
Now, it can not only not divert fighters or draw down, with the cancellation of the negotiations, Pakistan has also lost for the moment the special leverage it enjoyed in Washington. That will adversely affect its ongoing campaign against India in Kashmir. As the FATF plenary looms, Pakistan may find the west less willing to give it a pass on the black list.
Last Monday, after eight rounds of talks, US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad announced that the talks focused on the technical details of the agreement. In later interviews, these would be seen to be essentially that the US would withdraw over 5,400 troops and vacate three bases in 135 days, while the Taliban would “promise” to sever ties with terror groups like Al Qaeda, though no one was sure how that could be verified.
Throughout the negotiations, Taliban kept up a steady stream of fighting and attacks. Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal detailed a few, beginning with Taliban abducting and beheading Abdul Samad Ameri, head of the Afghan human rights commission, as well as targeted attacks on potential opposing forces, mainly from the Kabul government. “For those clinging on to hopes that a peace deal will actually mean peace, look no further than than the Taliban atrocities of the past week. The peace of the Taliban will not be peaceful,” he wrote.
That the impending “peace” deal was in trouble was clear when US secretary of state Mike Pompeo declared he would not sign it, despite saying in June that September 1 was a deadline.
This week also saw nine former US ambassadors including James Dobbins, John Negroponte, Ryan Crocker among others writing a joint letter to caution the US against its decision to withdraw troops before the peace deal.