New Delhi: Just as the leap year day was about to end, the US and the Taliban signed a peace deal bringing the curtains down on the 18-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, with India just “observing” the historic deal being signed.
Officially called the ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’, the deal was signed in Doha, Qatar, on 29 February, with Pakistan playing a central role in facilitating the talks between America and its former enemy, the Taliban.
The peace deal entails a 14-month window within which NATO troops will be pulled out from there and Taliban prisoners, caught by US forces, will be released. In exchange, the Taliban has promised to not allow international terror outfits to make Afghanistan their base.
For India, the new and emerging situation in Afghanistan is not only worrying, but also one that will require deep strategic thinking and approach even as it continues to walk the tightrope when it comes to balancing between the Pashtuns and the non-Pashtuns — Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.
While India continues to aid Afghanistan, it should now let the situation unfold, according to experts and analysts.
India’s development assistance to Afghanistan has gone up to $3 billion since American forces toppled the Taliban government from the country after the twin tower attacks in New York on 11 September 2001.
The assistance includes construction of roads, the Afghan Parliament, transmission lines, dams, among others.
“Today, the government (in Kabul) is weak because the election outcome is disputed. This diminishes our leverage for the time being. Pakistan’s leverage is on account of being the ‘spoiler’,” Rakesh Sood, former Indian Ambassador to Kabul, told ThePrint.
“Pakistan can help contribute to peace but India remains the indispensable partner for development. This realisation is not lost on the Taliban. However, the development process can only be resumed once peace is restored. We should, therefore, not be in a rush now but see how the situation unfolds,” said Sood, who is currently a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
India had amicable ties with all Afghan govts
On Saturday, after both sides officially called it a truce, India said its consistent policy has been “to support all opportunities that can bring peace, security and stability in Afghanistan” even as it hoped for a “lasting political settlement through an Afghan-led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled process”.
Historically, and much before the Taliban came to power, India had robust ties with the government of the day in Kabul, for example with the king of Afghanistan Mohammad Zahir Shah.
Shah was also known as the “father of the nation” whose rule ended in 1973 as he was deposed by his cousin and brother-in-law Mohammad Daud Khan, who declared Afghanistan a republic by forming a coalition with the Communist Party even as the Russian influence in the country deepened.
Shah belonged to a long and complicated line of Pashtun rulers while Daud was a Durrani Pashtun. India had an amicable relationship with both.
Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, marked by a column of Russian tanks leaving Kabul, New Delhi had established links with the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik, who became the President of the new Islamic State of Afghanistan in 1992 and ruled until 1996.
The relationship continued until Rabbani’s assassination in 2011. Rabbani was the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council too, which was a body created by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai to broker talks with the Taliban.
“But times have now changed. The Afghan tribal structure is now gone after the 18 years of war there. So the scenario is entirely different today. Even if the US talks of withdrawal from there, it will continue to have a robust presence there with their intelligence,” said M. Bhadrakumar, former ambassador who was heading the Afghanistan-Pakistan desk at the Ministry of External Affairs when Najibullah was Afghan president.
“With the government there now in an unstable situation, the Taliban has got a leeway and Pakistan will not be able to run it, so the US has to be there, it’s better for India to wait and watch,” he added.
The turbulent years
Just before the Taliban emerged at the end of 1994, Afghanistan was in a state of rapid disintegration with warlords from various fiefdoms starting to fight with each other while Rabbani ruled Kabul.
This was the time when India had no option but to befriend the non-Pashtuns.
Meanwhile, Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum started gaining power and joined hands with Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also known as the ‘Butcher of Kabul’, and attacked Kabul.
The situation, however, turned dangerous when the Taliban in 1996 killed and hanged Najibullah, a Pashtun with whom India had friendly ties.
From 1996 to 2001 when India had to close down its embassy after the Taliban came to power, New Delhi started making connections with the non-Pashtuns.
However, after the Taliban was overthrown by the US forces in 2001 and Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai took over, India started rebuilding its ties with the Pashtuns again.
Before the twin tower attacks, India had found a friend in another Tajik leader — Ahmad Shah Massoud — a military commander of the Northern Alliance, who was popularly known as the ‘Lion of Panjshir’, who kept fighting the Taliban and the US forces until his assassination in 2001.
Massoud was killed by the Taliban two days before the Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, attacked the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
India had named a road after Massoud in New Delhi in April 2007.
“India has developed good relationships with all ethnic groups — Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras etc., during the last two decades. Our development cooperation projects have been welcomed across the country and exist in all the provinces of Afghanistan. This is because we have not played favourites among the different groups unlike many other countries,” added Sood.
India tenaciously made sure that it built ties with governments that are recognised with the UN. The same was true even when current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun, came to power.
India also made it clear from the beginning that it will not participate in the US-led peace talks in which the Ghani government is not a party, despite repeated requests by its old-time friend Karzai.
What’s next for India’s long-standing ties with Kabul?
While US President Donald Trump hailed the deal, he said he will soon be personally meeting the Taliban leaders.
The Afghan government has said it will soon begin an intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban that will involve all stakeholders, including India.
According to Sood, the intra-Afghan dialogue will be a “Bonn 2.0” of sorts “with Taliban at the table and speaking with an unprecedented degree of legitimacy”.
At the Bonn Conference in 2001, the Taliban were excluded and Pakistan has consistently maintained that this was a mistake.
“India would want the region and South Asian neighbourhood to be peaceful and stable. If peace in Afghanistan helps bury some of the strategic ghosts that Pakistan has conjured, it will be good for the entire region and all can focus on economic development,” said Amar Sinha, former India envoy to Kabul.
“Sooner or later the Taliban will come to power with international recognition. And India will have to then open links with them. There are indications now that Pakistan-based Haqqani network within the Taliban will emerge as leaders. Hence, India will be in serious difficulty then. India will now have to take a strategic approach once everything settles down,” Bhadrakumar added.