Less than a week after US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad recommended that India start talking to the Taliban, in recognition of the fact that it was expanding its presence across the country, an attack at a maternity hospital in Kabul left at least 24 people dead, including newborns and mothers.
Even for a country that has been at war with itself for so many decades, this was a new low. Khalilzad, who brokered a deal with the Taliban in late February, insisted that the maternity hospital attack was the responsibility of the Islamic State, except Afghan president Ashraf Ghani differed.
“The Taliban, with the stoking of foreigners, have intensified the war and are shedding Afghan blood,” Ghani said. By this past weekend, however, Ghani was signing a new unity agreement with his former number 2, Abdullah Abdullah, having been persuaded by Khalilzad that the conjoined leadership should embark upon a power-sharing dialogue with the Taliban to bring about a permanent peace.
What’s India up to?
Meanwhile, away from the glare of the headlights, something else has been taking place these past few weeks. In early April, India shut down two out of the four consulates in Afghanistan – Herat in the west, ostensibly because of rising Covid cases, and Jalalabad in the south, the gateway to the Khyber and the resting place of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan because it was getting increasingly insecure for Indians to function from there.
And guess who’s breathing a huge self-congratulatory sigh? Pakistan.
This is a cruel blow for Indian interests, even if it’s temporary. Fate will have her way, but the shutting down of the consulates is a clear and grim reminder that Delhi’s South Block has little time to pay close and continuous attention to the goings-on in its neighbourhood once-removed. Perhaps, its mandarins would rather serve in the posher capitals of the West.
The tragedy of India is that only a handful of people are truly interested in Afghanistan. Despite special perks and privileges for all those who work in Kabul and India’s four consulates–India has a presence of sorts in Kandahar and Mazar-i- Sharif–far too few diplomats opt for these postings. It’s every bit as embarrassing as pulling teeth.
So why wait for Covid to strike? Why even bother if the attack on the gurudwara in Kabul was really intended for the Indian mission? Who cares if Jalalabad regularly becomes a target of Pakistani proxies?
Delhi’s diplomatic inertia
Truth is, Delhi doesn’t need Zalmay Khalilzad to tell it to talk to the Taliban. Nor does it matter whether or not Zamir Kabulov, the Russian special envoy for Afghanistan, has a soft spot for Pakistan and believes it should have a primary role in any Afghan peace process.
The unfortunate truth is that Delhi looks at Afghanistan largely through the prism of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence. Some of it is necessary – we know that when the Haqqani Network targets Indians in Kabul and elsewhere, it is functioning as a pawn of the Pakistani establishment which believes India is the number one enemy.
But talking to the Taliban has never really been a problem. There have been several opportunities along the way, since the Taliban took Kabul in 1996. Taliban men had dragged former Afghan president Najibullah — a close friend of India — out of the UN compound in which he had been hiding, tortured him and hanged him from the nearest lamp-post in the city.
After the hijack of IC-814, then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh had to travel to Kandahar. Singh took then Taliban foreign minister Muttawakil’s arm and traded three terrorists for the lives of the plane’s passengers and crew. One of those terrorists, Masood Azhar, would go on to establish the Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pakistan. That incident still haunts the Indian establishment.
Over the years, as the Taliban morphed in and out of the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s men and a variety of other terror groups that may or may not have owed allegiance to the Pakistani establishment, it became clear that the need to keep your channels open with the Taliban were largely about gauging whether they would be an alternative source of power in Kabul.
Can Delhi talk to all stakeholders?
It’s easy to talk to the Taliban — even I know a few. The larger question is not whether Delhi should talk to the Taliban, which is easy enough to do, but whether Delhi has the capacity to talk to all stakeholders in the great game in Afghanistan.
That would include those in power today, like Ghani and Abdullah as well as all the US, China, Russia and Pakistan. What’s the point of talking to the Taliban if you don’t talk to their masters in Rawalpindi? And if you talk to the Taliban, should you draw the line with the other terror groups?
The point of Zalmay Khalilzad’s recommendation to India that it should talk to the Taliban is well taken. The objective of a conversation is to draw the other person out and find out what he knows or is thinking about, perhaps even get close and influence his course of action.
Delhi’s terribly smart diplomats know the first lesson in diplomacy: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
Khalilzad’s desperate need to strike a deal with the Taliban, despite the Covid outbreak back home, is a reflection of what his boss wants. As many as 2,441 US soldiers have died since 2001 when the US bombed the Taliban out of Afghanistan and US President Donald Trump knows the US public is exhausted fighting someone else’s war. If Khalilzad can deliver the Taliban promise and there is a decent enough interval of calm during which US troops can return home, then Trump may have a better chance in his reelection bid.
The Pakistan-US angle
Back to India’s consulates in Afghanistan and a short history lesson on how they came to be set up in 2002. In the wake of the Bonn Agreement, when Kabul asked New Delhi to reopen its mission in Kabul and four more consulates, Pakistan protested. India is probably the only nation in the world to earn the abundant love and affection of the Afghans and Pakistan knows that. The relationship with the rest is largely fear, and sometimes awe.
Interestingly, the Americans protested too. US diplomats told their counterparts in India that Pakistan needed to be given another chance (it had been only one of three countries to have recognised the Taliban, besides Saudi Arabia and UAE), that it had influence in the region and that the US did not want to offend it by allowing India to establish its presence, especially in southern Afghanistan, a region Pakistan considered part of its own sphere of influence.
Cushioned by what the Afghans wanted, India decided to spurn the Americans. Four consulates were opened. Today, 18 years later, as the Americans draw down and Khalilzad suggests Delhi talk to the Taliban, two out of those four consulates are being shut down.
So who’s going to fill that vacuum once the Americans are gone? The old Afghan great game just got a new life.
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