If Delhi wants to help its friends in Kabul, the time to do it is now.
Army Chief Bipin Rawat waded into choppy waters when he told a panel at ORF’s Raisina Dialogue that talks with Taliban are “in our interest, region’s interest, and in Pakistan’s interest. We all want stability”.
The comment is surprising. General Bipin Rawat has gone where no one in Delhi has gone before in recent months. Not external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and certainly not Prime Minister Narendra Modi. When India sent two retired diplomats – one of whom, Amar Sinha, has just become a member of the National Security Advisory Board – to the Moscow-sponsored talks between the Taliban and all the regional players, no explanations were offered.
Even when Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib visited Delhi late last week, the foreign ministry put out a vanilla statement, saying something as pro forma as “India supports all efforts for peace and reconciliation”.
India can hardly do otherwise. But the fact remains that Kabul is more than a little desperate to find alternative sources for help, especially because Donald Trump has announced that America has had enough of this war and his troops will soon pull out and go home.
Who can be that alternative?
Russia believes it has influence, India would love some influence and Iran knows it has some. Everyone, including the Americans, acknowledges that Pakistan, with its long and careful mentorship of the Taliban as well as other jihadi outfits like the Haqqani Network, holds the key to peace in Afghanistan.
Everyone also knows that Pakistan is waiting for the Americans to leave so that, with a little bit of help, the Taliban can return to power in Kabul. Just like in the 1990s, when the Pakistani military establishment – putting Benazir Bhutto in front as the face of the campaign – trained the Taliban to blast the Bamiyan Buddhas, overthrow Najibullah Ahmadzai in Kabul and instal a harsh regime that took all of Afghanistan back to the Stone Ages.
Even if 2019 isn’t going to be the same as 1996, the fact remains that Pakistan’s ISI is already plotting a takeover. The ISI showed its clout when at a December meeting in the UAE between the Taliban, US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Saudis, held to jump-start the transition of power in Afghanistan after the Americans leave, the ISI flew the so-called Taliban emir Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai to Abu Dhabi on its own planes.
Afghan sources over the last several months have been at pains to put on a brave face, but there is no hiding the fact that the end game is nigh. If India, Russia and Iran don’t do something now to prevent a takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban – which already effectively controls large parts of the country – and its mentor, Pakistan’s ISI, they may as well join the church choir and sing about peace and brotherhood together.
There isn’t an Afghan yet who doesn’t say nice things about India. But ask an Afghan leader privately what s/he thinks and they will tell you – after much squeezing of water from stone – that if India and the rest “don’t do something now”, then it may just be a little too late.
Enter Bipin Rawat, the Army chief, friend and comrade of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.
These last several years, regardless of the establishment, Delhi has repeatedly turned down Afghan offers to send troops to fight the Taliban. India fears it will be drawn into another regional conflict, especially with Pakistan, which seeks control over Afghanistan because it needs “strategic depth” to fight India.
Is Rawat, then, pushing for a greater interventionist role in the Afghan landscape? Is India, after Doval’s talks with Mohib last week, ready to send military trainers to Kabul, and provide defence equipment or at least help Kabul buy a few fighter jets it needs to blast the gathering enemy on the ground?
“There should be talks with Taliban so long as they don’t come with pre-conditions and so long as they are looking at lasting peace in Afghanistan and bring about stability in that country,” Rawat said at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) conference Wednesday.
Or is Bipin Rawat simply speaking without any filters and “just generally”?
Giving – gratuitous – advice, especially when you don’t want to back your money, is a plain case of talking too much. No wonder most Army chiefs in India have been seen and not heard, although Rawat clearly doesn’t like that playbook.
Let us wait for Rawat or someone else in Delhi to now say the same thing to US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is in Delhi these days. One wonders if Sushma Swaraj given the same message to Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, who has just left? Did Doval assure Hamdullah Mohib that India would “do something?”
It’s fine, of course, if India still wants to play by the “development” playbook, building libraries and schools and wells and dams in Afghanistan. But there is a time when friends must stand up and be counted. This is one of those times.
The chess game awaits a new move. As Pakistan moves in to re-establish control through its Taliban puppets, the Americans withdraw, Tehran asserts itself and the Russians flex muscle, the silence from Delhi is palpable.
There is no foreign policy decision of the Modi government that is more important than Afghanistan – every other relationship can wait till the formation of a new government.