China has invited the representatives of the Afghan Taliban to take part in a two-day intra-Afghan dialogue in Beijing with Afghanistan’s political figures — a move that has received a firm endorsement from the United States. India should have made efforts to organise a similar conference because its continued marginalisation — a modern-day version of British India’s ‘masterly inactivity’ — from the reconciliation process in Afghanistan is not productive.
There remains some uncertainty over when the intra-day talks will be held. Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib has suggested it could be after the presidential election results have been announced on 14 November but has also put a pre-condition for the talks — a month-long ceasefire by the Taliban. But as the Taliban representatives continue to meet officials from Russia, China and Pakistan at various locations after US President Donald Trump’s unexpected announcement calling off the US-Taliban peace talks last month, it is not advisable for India to continue to stay away from the unfolding process.
The Donald Trump administration has, meanwhile, also started back-channel attempts to reopen the stalled peace talks with the Taliban. The United States’ seriousness about restarting the negotiations became clearer when Defence Secretary Mark Esper made an unscheduled trip to Kabul on 20 October to emphasise the need for “a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement … that meets our ends and meets the goals we want to achieve.” Briefly overlapping with Esper’s visit, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also led a congressional delegation to Afghanistan “to conduct effective oversight” of America’s mission in Afghanistan.
India’s false beliefs
The Indian establishment had heaved a sigh of relief when Trump announced that talks with the Taliban deal were “dead”. But it was unsustainable to keep the process stalled since Trump’s original instinct was to leave Afghanistan at the earliest. The ambiguity of US policies has not only kept India guessing but may have made it more insecure.
Indian establishment had probably entertained false beliefs that it finally found an American president who was willing to operationalise the threats many of his predecessors were routinely but ridiculously issuing to Rawalpindi to stop supporting terrorist groups. For close to one year, the Trump administration officials believed what India had been advocating for long: Talks with the Taliban would not resolve the Afghan conflict since the Taliban were puppets in the hands of Pakistan’s security establishment.
India’s assessment was not unfounded. The Afghan Taliban’s overall attitude towards India has been inimical. During the negotiations to secure the release of Indian hostages of hijacked IC-814, the Taliban acted as prompted by their bosses in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s premier spy agency. Therefore, if not on Pakistan, there seemed to be a broad convergence between Washington and New Delhi on how to deal with the Afghan problem, as reflected in Trump’s August 2017 speech. It is all history now; a sad history.
There is no doubt that whatever be the nature of the inevitable deal between the US and the Afghan Taliban, the latter is soon going to have a significant presence in the power corridors of Kabul. Though India has supported Afghanistan through developmental measures spanning various sectors, it has been extremely careful not to be seen helping the Ashraf Ghani regime militarily. This non-interventionist aspect has been underlined by the latest report of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which has said: “India has been the largest regional contributor to Afghan reconstruction, but New Delhi has not shown an inclination to pursue a deeper defense relationship with Kabul.”
The CRS report of the US Congress had come days before Trump met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan last month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s 74th session. On the eve of the Trump-Modi meeting in New York, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had a meeting with the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad. In all probability, Jaishankar was trying to figure out what comes next in the Afghan peace process.
Pakistan has been desperate to play the role of facilitator for impending US-Taliban talks. Despite a degree of autonomy that the Taliban has come to acquire during the last many years, no country has as much leverage with them as Pakistan. The Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was in Islamabad early this month on the invitation of the Pakistani government where he was accorded official protocol. These contacts assume significance because Pakistan has been making persistent efforts to link the peace process in Afghanistan with developments in Jammu and Kashmir.
India is an important stakeholder in Afghanistan’s peace process as the extra-regional alliances on Afghanistan are largely a reflection of some enduring external rivalries. India’s attempts to maintain warm bilateral ties with Russia and Iran have been driven as much by their common interests in supporting some ethnic groups against radically Sunni jihadist elements in Afghanistan as by the need to counter China-Pakistan nexus. China seems convinced that the Pakistan Army is capable and talented enough to help it secure its commercial and strategic interests in the region.
But Russia’s competing priorities make it clear that without inserting itself in the Afghan peace process, New Delhi will have a hard time in countering Rawalpindi’s attempts to blackmail the Trump administration. It needs to be noted that given his penchant to leave Afghanistan before the 2020 presidential election, Trump has continued to offer mediation between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir issue so as to keep Islamabad invested in the process.
Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan are fundamentally a manifestation of its own lopsided security ambitions and exaggerated insecurity concerns. They are primarily motivated by the logic of countering India’s growing influence among Afghans, with attempts to indirectly shift the longstanding proxy war to Afghan soil. Maintaining strategic depth against India in Afghanistan is still seen as a vital goal by the Pakistan Army besides extinguishing the Pashtun aspirations for a united Pashtunistan. As long as Islamabad continues to see an independent-minded Kabul regime as a threat and the Afghan Taliban as an asset, there will be no lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Absence from peace talks hurt India
India would certainly like to see a stable Afghanistan, but this stability cannot ensure peace and prosperity for the Afghan people if it comes on terms dictated in general headquarters in Rawalpindi. Moreover, it will also directly threaten India’s interests in Jammu and Kashmir. That is why India has been steadfast in its support to the democratically-elected Afghan presidents since 2001 – Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani – in order to bolster their bargaining power vis-à-vis both Pakistan and the Taliban. Ever since the US-Taliban negotiations began, India has worked with the Ghani regime to strengthen its legitimacy so that it could not be compelled to accept an asymmetrical power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban.
But India’s longstanding policy of benign aloofness from the Afghan peace process has also been the biggest difficulty in India’s Afghan outreach. India’s ‘soft power’ projection coupled with political support to the Kabul regime may have earned it immense goodwill among the Afghan people in the hope that this positive public opinion will insulate it against the dangers of Islamist fundamentalist in the region, but it may have also made India an irrelevant actor in the ‘hard power’ calculations currently underway between the practitioners of realpolitik among the US, Pakistan, China and Russia, and the Taliban. Just like the Ashraf Ghani regime, India has largely remained on the sidelines of the US-Taliban peace negotiations. It must play a role that befits its rising stature and ambitions in Asia. Outreach to the Taliban is thus overdue even though the road ahead is full of craters and ditches.
The author is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice. Views are personal.
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