The Taliban has trumped the US in Afghanistan | Analysis
The deal will be packaged as a historic triumph of Islamist groups and jihadist outfits for decades to come.
On February 29, a leap day, the United States (US) took a leap of faith by formalising an agreement with the Taliban in Qatar’s capital Doha, agreeing to terms of withdrawal of America’s 19-year-long war in the country, which cost the lives of over 2,000 US soldiers, and nearly $900 billion. Perhaps not in their wildest dreams had the American leadership over the past two decades expected this photo-op, where US Special Representative for Afghanistan, ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, sat at the same table, in front of the world, and shook hands with the Taliban, agreeing to a gradual withdrawal of US troops and their allies.
The details of the agreement between the US and the Taliban are in public for all to see, and it was recognised for some time now that the Taliban went into these negotiations with an upper hand. The Afghan government, from the start, was not part of the negotiations, putting the Afghan people’s representation incidental to their own future.
The Taliban had started to pave the way for their own resurrection sensing two main trends, that both the detractors and supporters of the anti-Taliban campaign had reached an exhaustion point. Both camps, while disagreeing with each other, agreed that this was an unwinnable war.
However, most discussions on this issue have ranged around what this means for the US, the Taliban and the Afghan people, and rightly so. Nonetheless, South Asia, and the larger West Asian region, will ultimately endure a large part of both the success and failure of this agreement, and an imminent US withdrawal.
While a lot would ride on the intra-Afghan dialogue, slated to start on March 10, the agreement says that the Taliban will start these negotiations with “Afghan sides”, not specifically mentioning the Afghan government. Two days after the deal, the Taliban already seems to be preparing for hostilities against the Afghan armed forces once again.
A larger question that now arises is how do other groups, the likes of al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), both of whom having strongholds in Afghanistan, view the said deal? The expected reactions will, in all likelihood, be in the form of packaging of this deal as a victory of the mujahedeen over the US, a narrative that may resonate as a song of a historic triumph for decades to come for Islamist groups and jihadist movements.
The Taliban, and its leaders, since its inception in 1994, have had a rich history of supporting al-Qaeda, giving bayats (pledge of allegiance) to its leadership under both Osama bin Laden, and his successor, and current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
However, the deal signed by the US mentions al-Qaeda only in passing, and has stronger language dedicated to the US starting work towards removing Taliban members from the United Nations sanctions list. Moreover, the Taliban has provided next to no proof of any significant operations or manoeuvres over the past few months of specifically targeting al-Qaeda leaders or infrastructures to showcase its sincerity. The Taliban’s word, without any quantifiable proof, leads the charge in this deal.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an on-and-off part of al-Qaeda in the Syrian civil war used lines from Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to the American people” document to eulogies the vision of the late Taliban chief, Mullah Omar. “‘God has promised us victory, and Bush has promised us defeat. We’ll see which promise is more truthful,’ Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid, may God have mercy on him” said an online release by the group in reaction to the deal, celebrating it as a victory of bin Laden’s wisdom and vision.
Even through fractures among jihadist groups in Afghanistan and beyond, the reading of the deal and an impending total withdrawal of American forces would be seen as a significant victory for Islamist jihad. Meanwhile, it is possible that dissenters within Taliban in numbers will switch sides to ISIS Khorasan.
The effects of the same for the likes of India could be significant. While India attended the US -Taliban deal signing as an “observer”, and foreign secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, made a sprint to Kabul to meet President Ashraf Ghani, the fact remains that India was a self-designed “observer” in almost the entire process, choosing to sit in the stands, and having little say in the actual game.
On the other hand, Pakistan may come off as a big winner, despite suggestions that an end to the Afghan conflict may see Washington distance itself from Islamabad and Rawalpindi. India may only be adding weight behind the Afghan government, but the Taliban’s very being comes from within Pakistan, for which Afghanistan is a critical battleground against Indian influence.
Much depends on the successful progression of the US-Taliban deal. However, in the short-term, it is the upcoming US presidential elections and President Donald Trump’s bid for a second term that will benefit the most.
However, as it stands today, it does not seem unfathomable that over the next few years the Taliban may be able to form a government, being back in control of Kabul, and sit in a parliament building built by India and inaugurated by an Indian prime minister.