Diplomatic Enclave: US’ Afghan gambit

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The Americans have set the pace for their withdrawal from Afghanistan. US president Barack Obama said that “it was time to turn the page” while he was announcing the American timeframe for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. American soldiers would be down to less than 10,000 later this year; about half return the next year and the rest by 2016. This schedule would fulfill the US president’s assurance of bringing back all American soldiers from Afghanistan.

Around the same time the Americans were negotiating the release of a US soldier who had been in Taliban custody for nearly five years. This was in exchange for five top Taliban leaders who had been held in the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The swap was negotiated with the ruler of Qatar acting as an intermediary and giving assurances that the Taliban leaders would be held in Qatar for a year. Though the Taliban leaders would not be able to return to Afghanistan for some time, their release as part of a swap with the US is a big boost for it. The swap left Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai fuming, as he was not kept in the loop about it. Taliban leader Mullah Omar has already termed it a “big victory”. At the very least, the US, a superpower has been forced to negotiate with the Taliban and hand over the five Taliban leaders.

Both the events, which took place right in the midst of the Afghan presidential election, are dictated by domestic considerations in the US. A high profile event involving the armed forces usually attracts good publicity. The American withdrawal is timed to be complete as the Obama administration starts winding down. Incidentally, Sgt Bowe Bergdahl’s release has been marred by reports that he may have been a deserter.

The American penchant for announcing its plans for Afghanistan in advance provides the Taliban the opportunity to harden their stance or prepare their strategy. Even as he was approving the sending of additional troops to Afghanistan, president Obama had announced that American troops would be withdrawn by 2014. That was enough to negate the impact of the additional forces on the security situation in Afghanistan.

The prisoner swap is a deal that would not be possible without the help from Pakistan. The timely assistance would bring Islamabad back into the Afghanistan story with a couple of chips in its favour especially as the US moves apace to quit Afghanistan. The prisoner swap deal is an indicator of things to come in Afghanistan. The Taliban wanted direct negotiations with the US for they have always dismissed the Karzai government as a “puppet” of the Americans.

American officials are reported to have claimed that the deal with the Taliban would help the Afghan government, giving credence to the view that the US may also be working on a larger agreement with the Taliban as part of its exit strategy. US defence secretary Chuck Hagel expressed the hope that the exchange might lead to breakthroughs in reconciliation with the militants.

Both the withdrawal schedule and the prisoner swap have their implications for Afghanistan. The Taliban, which was unable to disrupt the first round of the presidential poll on April 4 have mounted a series of attacks. President Karzai blamed the Lashkar-e-taiba (LeT) for being behind the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat. The attack on the consulate was reportedly planned with the aim of creating a long-drawn hostage situation to vitiate the atmosphere in New Delhi during Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit. The attack was foiled with the help of Afghan security forces but an Indian priest working for a foreign charity was abducted shortly afterwards.

The bilateral security agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and the US is still hanging fire, waiting for the Afghan presidential elections to be completed. The two contenders in the presidential run-off election due on June 14, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani have said they will sign a BSA once elected. Abdullah had won 45 per cent of the votes in the first round while Ghani got about 31 per cent. Ashraf Ghani is a Pashtun and though Abdullah is part Pashtun, the Pashtuns regard him as Tajik. Both candidates have good relations with Washington, though Ghani, a former World Bank official, has greater acceptability in Washington and Islamabad.

The successful presidential polls were a setback to the Taliban. The question is whether the exchange is likely to create the conditions for wider discussions on reconciliation. This time the Americans have set themselves a deadline, which may make political sense but would surely curtail their space for manoeuvering. There have been secret exchanges in the past with the Taliban including the thwarted move to open an office in Qatar last year but none of them made any headway.

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