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India shouldn’t wait and watch, must play more assertive role in Afghanistan, say experts

After Antony Blinken’s India visit, Shaharzad Akbar of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and Lisa Curtis of CNAS Indo-Pacific Security Program say Delhi must push for Afghan conflict being resolved through talks.

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New Delhi: India should play an assertive role in reviving Afghan peace talks, junk its wait-and-watch approach, and push Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani to expand his group of advisers and unite the Afghan elite, according to experts. 

The experts — Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kabul, and Lisa Curtis, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at US think tank Center for a New American Security — were participating in a discussion Thursday in the wake of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s two-day visit to India.

The discussion, hosted by ThePrint’s Senior Consulting Editor Jyoti Malhotra, centred on the ongoing NATO pullout from Afghanistan after a 20-year war, and the re-emergence of the Taliban, which has been marked by grave violence in the country.

In April, US President Joe Biden announced a full withdrawal of US and allied troops from Afghanistan by 11 September — the 20th anniversary of 9/11 — thus putting an end date on America’s longest war. Biden has since said the pullout may be completed by 31 August. 

In the days since, the Taliban have captured several districts and key border crossings. Nearly 2,000 civilians have reportedly been killed since April amid intensifying violence between the Taliban and Afghan security forces.

Akbar said many regional actors, like India, “are hedging their bets to see what the military reality will look like in Afghanistan”. They should instead collectively send out a message that the Afghan conflict needs to be solved through negotiation, not violence.

Curtis pointed out that India has a good relationship with President Ghani. “It can push him to work with other power brokers and listen to other advisers… He needs to create a bigger tent… [and] unify the Afghan elite…”

Meanwhile, referring to Blinken’s meeting with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, she said she hoped “India was able to convince Secretary Blinken of the necessity to ensure that the Taliban are not able to ascend militarily”.

Also read: The Taliban in Afghanistan has not changed. Just ask women

Doha agreement was ‘weak’

Asked why the US’ withdrawal was “shabby”, Curtis — part of the National Security Council in the Trump administration from 2017 to January 2021 — sought to shift the focus to the Doha agreement, which she described as “weak”.

The agreement, signed between the US and the Taliban in February 2020, didn’t involve the Afghan government.

It sought to pave the way for intra-Afghan talks to chart out a political roadmap for the nation after the exit of international troops. The intra-Afghan talks are yet to yield a breakthrough despite another round of discussions last month.

“It was not negotiated in a manner that was looking out for the interests of Afghanistan,” she said, adding that the Afghan government was made to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners without the Taliban having to make any concessions. 

The Biden administration failed to re-evaluate the Doha agreement as it came in “very sour” and desperate to get US troops out of Afghanistan, she said.

Agreeing, Akbar added: “There was nothing in there [in the agreement] for the protection of Afghans.” She said there had not been a “responsible and orderly” withdrawal on the ground in Afghanistan.

She also took exception to the fact that the Istanbul Conference on the Afghanistan Peace Process — a dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban co-convened by the United Nations — was announced on the same day that the US declared it would withdraw troops from the nation by 11 September. 

“The timing of this — could they not have done this better?” she asked.

Taliban a ‘strategic asset for’ Pakistan

Curtis said Pakistan has not used its “significant influence” over the Taliban in a way that pushes it to make concessions for peace in Afghanistan.

“For them [Pakistan], the most valuable, strategic asset is the Taliban because they believe the Taliban will oppose India… they were comfortable with the Taliban when they were in power in the late 1990s,” she said.

Pakistan has done “small things” like releasing “pro-peace” Taliban leader Mullah Baradar from jail in 2018, she added. “They haven’t really done anything substantive to end the safe haven for the Taliban.”

Concurring, Akbar said Afghans hoped the US would use its leverage to make regional actors, including Pakistan, take more concrete steps towards the peace process.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also read: India right to wait till Taliban comes in full view. No need to rush into an ‘Afghan strategy’


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