Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Trump’s U-turn on the Taliban is good for India and the world

On 7 September, US President Donald Trump tweeted that he had cancelled meetings planned for the next day with Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and “called off peace negotiations" on Afghanistan. The immediate reason he cited was a Taliban attack in Kabul that had killed 12 people, including an American soldier. Later, he said that the talks were “dead". This is good news for Afghanistan, India and the world.

The 11-month-long US-Taliban negotiations had deeply disturbing implications right from the start. Trump’s goal was to end an 18-year-long war, the longest the US has ever fought, and get the 14,000 US troops still stationed there back home. The US negotiator was Pashtun-origin diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad. Pakistan, which has financed, armed and provided a safe haven for the Taliban for decades, acted as facilitator to bring the Taliban to the table.

The key condition the Islamist group laid down, which the US accepted, was that the democratically elected Afghan government was to be kept away from the talks, since it was a “US puppet". The US said it would withdraw its troops if the Taliban guaranteed that it would not allow terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda, to use Afghanistan as a base for attacks on the US and its allies.

Khalilzad travelled the world, talking of bringing peace to the troubled land, but only twice to India, the one country that the Afghan government and people trust, is among the world’s top donors to Afghanistan, and will be the most affected if the Pakistan-backed Taliban attain power in Kabul. But Khalilzad was focused on the deal and had little interest in the long-term consequences for Afghanistan and the region. On 2 September, he said that a draft agreement was ready. From the few details available, he seemed to have totally betrayed the Afghan government. Example: Without consulting it, he had agreed that the government would release thousands of Taliban prisoners!

There were enough warnings from experts. Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Kabul, told an interviewer in January: “To believe what the Taliban says is beyond naivety. It is dangerous… 9/11 came to us through an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban…Well, it’s the same Taliban. If anything, after 18 years, it is harder, meaner and more determined… No matter what they say, when we’re not around to do anything about it, they would do exactly that again and you set the stage for a new 9/11." On 3 September, nine US diplomats, who know Afghanistan well, including five former ambassadors, issued an impassioned appeal to the government not to rush into a deal and not to withdraw troops until peace is assured in the country.

Even as they negotiated, Taliban attacks across Afghanistan increased in number and ferocity. Both military and civilian body counts rose sharply. In the first week of September, while Khalilzad was announcing the draft deal, 179 soldiers and 110 civilians were killed.

In January, Khalilzad told The New York Times: “The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals." But a United Nations report released in July said that Al Qaeda “considers Afghanistan a continuing safe haven for its leadership, relying on its long-standing and strong relationship with the Taliban leadership", and that its “members continue to function routinely as military and religious instructors for the Taliban". In end-July, the Taliban released a video of flight UA 175 slamming into the World Trade Center, describing the 9/11 attacks as a “heavy slap on their dark faces".

If Khalilzad’s deal had gone through, and the US troops left, it would have enormously invigorated jihadists across the planet, who would have obviously seen it as a historic victory. The world would have been in greater danger. In Afghanistan, the civil war would have escalated exponentially. The Taliban would have possibly come to power, because they are more battle-hardened, more driven, and backed by the Pakistani military. And some issues are entirely non-negotiable in their belief system. They abhor democracy. Sharia and jihad are ingrained in their DNA. And only one fate awaits Afghan women if the Taliban come to power—a medieval abyss.

As for India, Pakistani terrorist groups, currently also helping the Taliban in Afghanistan, would now have a single focus. This may of course happen anyway after the revocation of Article 370, but with the Taliban in power, these outfits would be able to operate securely from Afghan soil with Taliban participation, lending Pakistan some plausible deniability.

In this particular case, Trump’s mercurial personality has served India well. India has spent over $3 billion on projects in Afghanistan, including building its parliament, a dam, highways and transmission lines. It has been instrumental in Afghanistan’s rise in world cricket, which has had a transformational impact on Afghan society. Afghans who want democracy and peace trust India.

India must seize this moment. Before Trump tweets a U-turn.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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