Gaurav Kumar Writes :
The attack on the Kabul gurudwara on 25 March 2020 allegedly by the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) killing many devotees has clearly exposed the deceptive sense of hope for peace in Afghanistan. The signing of an agreement between the US officials and the Taliban on 29 February 2020 had kindled a hope for the end of 4 decades long war.
The attack in fact is a demonstration by the insurgent group that it is able to target at the heart of the capital without any fear of reprisal. The ISKP in the past had been able to target sectarian and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, but was under tremendous military pressure from the US and Afghan Forces and from the Taliban in some provinces. On July 1, 2019, ISKP was able to target the Sikh community in Jalalabad, killing some of the prominent Sikh political voices[i]. The situation in Afghanistan appears grim due to two parallel developments- first, the continued insurgency by the Taliban and other insurgent groups against the Afghan Forces; and, the evolving political crisis.
The Loopholes in the Agreement
The peace agreement has been acknowledged as a strategic victory for the US, and a political window for the Afghan lawmakers and stakeholders to carve a path for long term peace. However, the terms of the agreement are problematic at multiple level creating both a false sense of assurance on the one hand, and forcing disadvantageous obligations on the Afghan Government on the other. For example, the crack begun to appear in the peace deal within the 24 hours of the signing. The Afghan President refused to release 5000 Taliban fighters as a precondition to the peace talks. He kept on reiterating the point that the release of prisoners could be a part of the intra Afghan dialogue but not a precondition to the dialogue. In a virtual meeting on 25 March 2020, it was decided that the release of the prisoners will practically start by the end of March[ii]. It is expected that the release of the prisoners will eliminate a major bottleneck holding up intra-Afghan dialogue.
The release of the prisoners is a double edge sword for the Afghan Forces, as the Taliban is going to use these bonus insurgents to target the Afghan forces, which interestingly they began a day after the signing of the deal. “The reduction in violence…has ended now and our operations will continue as normal. As per the (US-Taliban) agreement, our mujahideen will not attack foreign forces but our operations will continue against the Kabul administration forces,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid had said[iii].
Secondly, any concerted effort by the Taliban to destabilise the Afghan Forces will have spin off effect on the government effort to counter the violence by ISKP. The Taliban’s increased offensive against the ISKP in Nangarhar in 2019 was aimed to convince the western forces that it would act against international terrorist groups. Some reports claimed that the insurgents had sent some of their elite units to the province to strike at the Islamic State[iv]. However, by engaging the Afghan forces in combat mission, in absence of the active support by the US forces, is only going to help the ISKP.
The signing of agreement also came amidst major political crisis over a contested election in which both former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah had claimed victory. President Ghani was sworn in for a second term on 09 March 2020, in a ceremony attended by large number of foreign officials. The presence of the international dignitaries clearly suggested the Ghani was able to score over his rivals. On 26 March 2020, Abdullah held a news conference where he appeared open to talks to resolve the crisis which he said was “not in the interest” of anyone[v]. However, the political crisis doesn’t end with the inauguration of Ghani as a President. In fact, it has opened the long-suppressed Pashtuns versus the non-Pashtun ethnic faultline. The political instability in the Afghanistan has always aggravated the ethnic fissure, which in turn had been a serious source of problem for the Afghan Government in the past.
Implication for India
On 27 March 2020, the Afghan Government finalised a 21-member team to negotiate with the Taliban for the upcoming talks. The announcement came days after US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced a $1 billion cut in immediate aid to Afghanistan in 2020, and a further $1 billion in 2021[vi]. The possible cut in the aid might jeopardise the little gain made by the US after signing the agreement with the Taliban. The cut is also a stern signal to the political forces in Afghanistan that their political bickering has a cost.
For India, every political and military development have its implication on its strategic interest in the region. First, amidst the political crisis, it must balance its engagement both with the Kabul government and the Abdullah Abdullah faction. On the peace agreement, India stopped short of lauding the deal. In its measured response, MEA spokesperson reiterated India’s consistent policy which is to support all opportunities that can bring peace, security and stability in Afghanistan; end violence; cut ties with international terrorism; and lead to a lasting political settlement through an Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled process[vii].
India has some genuine apprehensions. The text of the agreement also has element of ambiguity as far as the use of Afghan soil by the international group is concerned. The text of the agreement prohibits from using Afghan soil to threaten the United States and its allies. India can hardly be called the US allies, and therefore, leaves ample space for the Pakistan based groups to use Afghan soil for anti-India activities. Secondly, involvement of an Indian national in the Kabul Gurudwara attack might turn out to be a major source of tension for India. The IS had issued a statement saying the Kabul attack was revenge for India’s treatment of Muslims in Kashmir and threatened more attacks[viii]. India, at this stage would not like to be seen as a reason for attacks in the foreign countries.
Overall, the current situation in Afghanistan hardly aspires for a peace envisioned by the international community and the Afghan Government. The terms and conditions for the intra Afghan will be dictated by the military success on the ground, which in turn appears to be leaning towards the Taliban.
[ii] “Taliban, Afghan Government to Discuss Prisoner Release.” News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, March 25, 2020.https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/taliban-afghan-government-discuss-prisoner-release-200325154406217.html
[iii] “Taliban Ends Partial Truce as Afghan Violence Resumes.” The Economic Times. Economic Times, March 3, 2020. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/taliban-say-will-resume-operations-against-afghan-forces/articleshow/74443681.cms
[iv] Gibbons-neff, Thomas, and Mujib Mashal. “ISIS Is Losing Afghan Territory. That Means Little for Its Victims.” The New York Times. The New York Times, December 2, 2019.https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/02/world/asia/ISIS-afghanistan-baghdadi.html
[v]Elena Pavlovska “Abdullah Says Taliban Prisoner Release Helps Peace Process.” New Europe, March 27, 2020. https://www.neweurope.eu/article/abdullah-says-taliban-prisoner-release-helps-peace-process/
[vi] “US Cuts Afghan Aid: Will It Bring Peace Closer?” Atlantic Council, March 27, 2020. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/us-cuts-afghan-aid-will-it-bring-peace-closer/
[vii] “Response to Media Queries.” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. February 29, 2020.https://www.mea.gov.in/response-to-queries.htm?dtl/32442/Official_Spokespersons_response_to_media_queries_on_the_the_issuance_of_a_Joint_Declaration_between_the_Afghan_and_US_Governments_in_Kabul_and_signing
[viii] Bhardwaj, Ananya, Seshadri Chari, Srijan Shukla, and Naila Inayat. “Youth from Kerala’s Kasargod Could Be among Gunmen Who Attacked Kabul Gurudwara.” ThePrint, March 27, 2020. https://theprint.in/india/youth-from-keralas-kasargod-could-be-among-gunmen-who-attacked-kabul-gurudwara/389958/
Gaurav Kumar is an Assistant Researcher and Editor at the USI.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he/she belongs to or of the USI of India.