Will the US – Taliban peace accord hold? The majority perhaps would respond with a vociferous ‘no’ while some with a nuanced ‘maybe’.
The naysayers primarily belong to two distinct categories: first, those who firmly believe the 9/11 episode was stage-managed by the USA to provide them with an excuse to invade the Muslim countries in the Middle East and Pakistan. In their view, the US – India strategic nexus is already in place to frustrate the growing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Occupation of Afghanistan was necessary to encircle China from the West and to exploit the trillion-dollar treasure trove it allegedly possessed in the form of precious and semi-precious minerals. That the UN in December 2001 unanimously authorised the setting up of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) whose composition was dominated by the American military personnel without a veto by China, mattered little.
Having spent a little over two trillion US dollar plus and sacrificed over 2440 American service personnel dead and 20,320 wounded, it would make no sense for the USA to give up the Afghanistan prize and go home. The peace accord, in their judgment, is merely a ruse by the USA to buy time, and rethink their military strategy. The return of all US combatants within fourteen months of the accord signing would be slowed down on one pretext or the other. When the USA is ready, the Taliban would be blamed for severe violation of the accord agreement and occupation of Afghanistan would continue with greater force and vigour. If one were to accept their assumption/premise as correct, this line of thinking appears logical.
The second category of ‘naysayers’ examines the peace accord from a very different perspective. Their reasoning is as follows: Afghanistan for over four decades has been continually at war, either fighting the foreign forces or one another. The current lot of Taliban soldiers and commanders are adept only at warfighting. Can they handle peace when they have no other skills to fall back on? Will they accept the loss of power and privileges once peace returns? The first Taliban commander, the late Mullah Omar had a firm grip over all the Taliban factions. Since his death, the hold of his successors has gradually diminished. The current Taliban leader’s hold is more diffused; Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the powerful Haqqani group and Abdul Ghani Baradar are the other key players among the Taliban rank. Sooner, rather than later, some of the splinter offshoots will rebel, breaking the truce accord and the situation would return to status quo ante.
The refusal of the Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani to honour the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners in their custody as jointly agreed between the USA and the Taliban has already thrown a spanner in the peace deal. A Taliban attack on the Afghan government forces has resulted in the Americans bombing the Taliban as a reprisal. If the situation is not resolved quickly, the peace accord will be stillborn.
The ‘maybe’ bloc observes the events optimistically. In their view, the long-drawn 18 years old conflict has produced no winners and is not likely to produce one in the near future. The fatigue factor has set in, and both the USA and the Taliban are looking for a way out. While the USA seeks a solution where it can cut its losses in Afghanistan and brings its troops back home without being labelled as the loser, the Taliban also realise while they will eventually prevail, still, as long as the American forces remain in their soil, victory could take another decade or more.
Obama, as the presidential candidate had declared the Afghanistan conflict as a war of necessity that had to be won; unfortunately, progress toward a victory made little headway once he assumed office. Commenting on his troop surge, David Fitzgerald and David Ryan wrote, “Obama’s decision on escalation tried to square a circle”. By the time his term ended, his Afghanistan exit strategy had morphed into ‘Afghan Good Enough’. After the US exit, as long as Afghanistan did not pose a threat to the US interest, the Afghans could be at liberty to run their state of affairs, even if it violates the western concept of democracy and personal freedom. Not surprisingly, it was a triumph of American interest over American values.
Donald Trump’s election pledge was to pull out the American troops from Afghanistan – a conflict, he considered unnecessary. Without saying as much, he too has opted for Obama’s ‘Afghan Good Enough’ strategy. Trump had to fight his top Generals who continued to push for additional troops, promising victory, for the first three years of his presidency. Eventually, he overcame the Pentagon’s objections and reluctance and has negotiated a deal with the Taliban, resulting in the current peace accord.
The peace accord is critical for Trump, as its success would significantly boost his reelection chances in the November US presidential elections. Besides, he believes it would guarantee the Noble Peace prize in 2021—the recognition by the world body that he has been craving for, since he took office in January 2017.
Much is riding on how the accord progresses, and for him, failure is not an option. Trump will pull out all stops to ensure the agreement does not bomb out, at least until his reelection. The Taliban too realise how critical the peace accord is for the US President, and they must have been advised by their sympathisers to play along, ensuring they respect the terms of the agreement. Also, their push to overthrow the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani through an all-out offensive is postponed until the US presidential election. Post US presidential elections, the agreement clause where the Americans would not interfere in the domestic and internal affairs in Afghanistan as long as Daesh, Al Qaeda and any militant group hostile to the USA are not provided sanctuaries in Afghanistan would apply. The Taliban would then have a free hand to employ all options, including the use of force to regain power in the Centre.
A complete pullout of all American military forces including the American airpower from Afghanistan would not mean options for an American invasion of Afghanistan similar to Operation Enduring Freedom would recede. American airpower can be unleashed from several airbases at short notice in the friendly Gulf States, should the US decide to punish the Taliban for any serious violation of the accord terms. The Taliban too must have learned the lessons the heavy price they had to pay for defying a US ultimatum in 2001.
And if the two belligerents act in the manner the ‘maybe’ minority hope, the peace accord could well surprise the ‘naysayers’ and succeed.