Facing stiff challenge to his re-election from a surging Bernie Sanders (Democrat nomination aspirant) armed with popular progressive agenda and his failed Iranian gamble, Donald Trump is now desperately looking towards new avenues to brighten his electoral prospects. Sanders recorded an emphatic win in Nevada Democratic presidential caucus last Saturday described by a political commentator as the dawn of “a new era in American life.” Similarly, the people in the US did not accept the Trump narrative on Iran and held rallies across the US against any misadventure.
Despite no trade agreement with India in sight, Trump has taken out time to visit this country hoping for a massive swing of votes of Indian community in the US in his favour. Equally on his mind is signing of a peace deal with the Taliban on February 29. In his usual style of speaking, Trump told reporters on Sunday before he left the White House for the India visit, “We think they (Taliban) want to make a deal. We want to make a deal. I think it’s going to work out.” He added “time to come home (American soldiers in Afghanistan).”
To pave the way for signing of the peace deal, the Taliban have agreed to “reduction in violence” beginning intervening night of February 21-22. They, however, rejected the key US demand for a cease-fire. But was it not the ground on which Trump had called off the Camp David meeting in September last year, when the Taliban representatives were supposed to travel to the US for signing an agreement worked out by US interlocutor Zalmay Khalilzad?
Well, time changes everything. Getting American soldiers out of Afghanistan was a key promise that Trump made during his election campaign in 2016, which remains unfulfilled. Even an announcement to the effect can boost his electoral prospects. Similarly, the Taliban are afraid that the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria may get a firm foothold in Afghanistan to the detriment to their interests, if the war rages on.
So, there are separate compelling domestic circumstances for all three players –– the US, Pakistan and the Taliban –– to come to an understanding so that key interests of every side are taken care of at least to some extent. The US is getting a promise that the Taliban would not allow Afghan soil to be used against US interests, which is way below an “honourable” settlement.
Nevertheless, the “agreement” has to be sold to the American people as a major diplomatic victory. Ground for the same was prepared when New York Times published a writeup on February 20 by Sirajuddin Haqqani, once on the hit list of the US, addressing many concerns that the “liberals” in the US and across the globe have about the Taliban. Writing on behalf of the Taliban, he has promised an inclusive Islamic system guaranteeing rights of women as enshrined in Islam. He has also agreed to keep the international community engaged and interested in Afghanistan. Who would have scripted this write-up and got it published in such a prestigious paper?
Much to India’s discomfort, Pakistan emerges as the key player to assure the US that the Taliban will behave, and the agreement will hold. Pakistan is the only country with significant leverage on the Taliban. Knowing well that Pakistan is a slippery customer, it has to be kept under tight leash using Financial Action Task Force grey list. This is exactly what the US is ensuring. One can understand the plight of Pakistan from the fact that they have to keep their most important “strategic asset”, Hafiz Saeed, behind the bars to get out of the grey list.
India has invested heavily in Afghanistan and enjoys goodwill among the people. But who is going to protect its interests, as India is not on the table? Will our strategic partner, the US, ensure that Afghanistan is not used by Pakistan against Indian interests? It is time for the Trump administration to keep India in the loop on Afghanistan, if the bilateral strategic partnership has to be strengthened.
(The writer is a former IB officer, who served in Pakistan)