US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in an interview on Sunday with CBS’s Face the Nation discussed the evolving relationship between Washington and the Afghan Taliban. Three things emerged.
First, Sullivan disclosed that “over-the-horizon strikes” against ISIS-K from outside Afghanistan will continue, but he ruled out any return to combat missions.
Second, Sullivan claimed that after the complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan on August 31, “we will make sure there is safe passage for any American citizen, any legal permanent resident” as well as those Afghans who had served US interests.
He said the Taliban “have both communicated privately and publicly that they will allow for safe passage” and Washington has the leverage to make sure that they “follow through on those commitments.”
Third, and most important, while the US Embassy in Kabul is scheduled to shut on September 1, “we will have means and mechanisms of having diplomats on the ground there [in Kabul], be able to continue to process out these applicants, be able to facilitate the passage of other people who want to leave Afghanistan.”
“And over time, depending on what the Taliban does, how it follows through on its commitments with respect to safe passage, how it deals with the treatment of women, how it deals with its international commitments not to allow Afghanistan to become a base for terrorism in the rest of the world, we can make further determinations about both diplomatic presence and other issues as we go.
“But the onus will be on the Taliban to prove out its commitments and its willingness to abide by the obligations that – that it has undertaken and that are imposed upon it by international law.”
In sum, the US appears to have negotiated a package deal with the Taliban where the logical conclusion in the conceivable future will be the reopening of the American embassy in Kabul.
A lengthy dispatch by the Voice of America on Sunday with a Kabul/Islamabad dateline, based on a briefing by a “senior Taliban leader … on condition of anonymity,” reported that the new Taliban government is “in the final stages” of being announced. It seems certain the announcement could come as early as next week.
The Taliban government
The government is sure to include all the members of its current Rahbari Shura, or leadership council, of the Taliban, but the cabinet could have more than 26 members all in all.
Interestingly, VOA reported: “In their internal consultations, the Taliban were also discussing the possibility of making either Sirajuddin Haqqani or Mullah Yaqoob [Mullah Omar’s son] the Raees ul Wazara, a position equivalent to a prime minister” and, “if Haqqani becomes prime minister, Yaqoob could be defense minister, since he currently heads the military commission of Taliban.”
The salience lies in the acceptance of the Taliban government as a compelling reality by Washington. Rhetoric aside, the US is already engaged with the Taliban in a constructive spirit. The United States’ major allies Germany and France are also doing the same.
Simply put, ostracizing the Taliban government is no longer an option – except in the highly unlikely event of the Taliban resiling from their commitments under the package deal.
From the Taliban’s point of view, this is an eminently satisfactory deal. The Taliban have a consistent record of keeping their commitments to the Americans. Even after the Doha Pact of February 2020 began unraveling, the Taliban kept their word on the single most important assurance under the agreement – that they would not attack US forces.
And they did keep their word even in the face of all those ferocious airstrikes by the US in recent months contrary to its assurance to the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the winds of change are also blowing through the horseshoe table of the UN Security Council. Interestingly, the UNSC statement of August 27 condemning the terror attacks in Kabul delisted the Taliban for the first time from the Afghan groups supporting terrorists, and merely said that “no Afghan group or individual should support terrorists operating on the territory of any other country.”
In fact, a day after the Taliban swept to power in the country, the UNSC said on August 16: “The members of the Security Council reaffirmed the importance of combating terrorism in Afghanistan to ensure the territory of Afghanistan should not be used to threaten or attack any country, and that neither the Taliban nor any other Afghan group or individual should support terrorists operating on the territory of any other country.”
Yet only 11 days later, last Friday, there was no more reference to the Taliban as a terrorist group. Clearly, the United States’ new thinking toward the Taliban as a constructive, cooperative interlocutor is rubbing off on the UNSC. This is realism with a capital “R.” The pathway has to open sooner rather than later to remove the UN sanctions against Taliban leaders.
Where India stands
All this must be a bitter pill for the Indian government to swallow when it also happens to be holding the rotating UNSC presidency through this month.
Presumably, to mollify India’s sense of humiliation and defeat in the entire Afghan saga, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a call with External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Saturday.
The State Department readout said the two ministers “discussed a broad range of shared priorities, including continued coordination on Afghanistan and in the United Nations … [and] agreed to remain closely coordinated on shared goals and priorities to deepen the US-India partnership.”
Diplomats aside, President Joe Biden’s administration expects Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to remain its loyal camp-follower even as Washington continues to act in its self-interest. Modi’s recent prophecy that the Taliban have no future failed to make any impression on the Biden White House.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.