India has reacted to the proposed Taliban peace deal with diplomatic scepticism, but it must stop dithering now.
The countdown for the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan has begun. And, India has no choice but to deal with the Taliban, else it will become a non-player in Afghanistan.
At the end of six-day negotiations at Qatar, both the Taliban and the United States were optimistic and reported progress. Taliban was more forthcoming and told news agency Reuters that a draft peace pact, which envisages a withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan within 18 months, has been agreed upon.
US’ special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, however, was more guarded in his approach and said the meetings were more productive than before and that nothing is agreed until every thing is agreed upon and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and a comprehensive ceasefire.
What the ‘draft pact’ means
As per the ‘draft’, foreign troops would leave within 18 months of the agreement being signed and the Taliban will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for terrorism against the US and its allies.
In nutshell, the future talks would work out the modalities of a comprehensive ceasefire, withdrawal of the troops of the US and its allies, power sharing in the interim government, amendments to the Afghan constitution and a future system of governance.
In my view, President Donald Trump would like to clinch the ‘deal’ before the next presidential election.
Shorn of diplomatic finesse, the US is working out the details of a face-saving exit from its longest war as it did in Vietnam 44 years ago, leaving Afghanistan to its fate. The US, so far, has spent a trillion dollars and lost 3,561 US and allied soldiers apart from 62,000 Afghan Army/Police and 24,000 civilians killed in the bitter war.
Why India must ‘deal’ with Taliban
India has reacted to the proposed agreement with usual diplomatic scepticism, but it must stop dithering to become part of the peace process.
It has been a major player in Afghanistan post 9/11 and enjoys the goodwill of the people. With an investment of $3 billion for development projects, it is the second largest contributor of foreign aid. It has helped train the Afghan National Army and has also provided some military equipment.
Despite the writing on the wall, until recently, it has opposed talks with the Taliban although it sent two former ambassadors to the Afghanistan Peace Conference, which was attended by the Taliban, held in November 2018 in Russia.
But given present-day interests, we must support the proposed agreement to get the best for the people of Afghanistan.
We must not only continue with economic aid but also announce economic projects proposed over the next 10 years along with their proposed Budget. The revival of the SAARC with focus on Afghanistan must be done on priority.
Pakistan accuses India of sponsoring terrorism from Afghanistan and does not want Indian influence to remain in Afghanistan.
The situation in Afghanistan demands that we shed the baggage of the last five years and recommence engagement with Pakistan with focus on economic cooperation and transit routes.
The economic future of Pakistan depends upon the success of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China’s prestige as a great power depends on the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, of which CPEC is a flagship project.
At Wuhan, India has already agreed to take part in the India-China-Afghanistan trilateral economic projects, which are an extension of the CPEC in Afghanistan and we must carry them forward.
And, it is crucial that India prepares a Plan B, should the Taliban revert to its original avatar. We must be prepared to assist the Northern Alliance economically and militarily and increase our diplomatic and economic cooperation with Tajikistan to facilitate the process.
Afghanistan post the US-Taliban ‘deal’
The future of Afghanistan will be determined by the strategy of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban as it adapts to the new situation. Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic tribal society which, for the last three centuries, has functioned as a loose coalition, mostly led by Pashtuns with a complex system of power sharing with other ethnic groups like the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks. When not fighting outside powers the Afghans have been fighting among themselves.
This is what happened after the defeat of the Soviet Union.
There was a complex internecine war between and within the ethnic tribes led by the warlords.
The entire infrastructure of the country was destroyed and it was divided between the Pashtun-dominated Taliban controlling the Southern 75 percent and the Tajik and Uzbek based Northern Alliance, the Northern 25 percent.
Once the US exits, the new dispensation, whatever form it takes, will inherit a reconstructed country with a fast developing infrastructure and well armed Afghan Nation Force. Its geostrategic location and mineral wealth gives it an opportunity to be a hub of economic activity in the region.
Peace and stability will ensure continuation of American and international investment, particularly from the regional players like China, India, Russia, Turkey and Iran apart from the money from oil-rich Arab countries.
The Taliban’s ideology is an innovative form of sharia Islamic law based on Deobandi fundamentalism, Salafi jihadism and Pashtun social and cultural norms known as Pashtunwali.
It believes in pan-Islamism and has a large number of Islamic warriors from the Middle East and Central Asia. It gives tacit support to elements of ISIS and Al Qaeda, which are also operational in the country.
It would be extremely difficult for the Taliban to wish away its ideology no matter what undertakings it gives in the agreement.
Pertinent to mention that it opted for defeat and destruction rather than violate the Pashtunwali to give up Al Qaeda’s feared leader and terrorist Osama Bin Laden.
More so, when along with its ally Pakistan, it considers the nearing defeat of the US in Afghanistan the greatest victory of Islam after the fall of the Ottoman empire in 1918.
On the other hand, if the Taliban reverts to the old ways, it will not get any international aid and lose the support of the regional players who have been aiding it in the hope of a stable Afghanistan to guard their own interests.
Pakistan’s strategy, which it has pursued relentlessly despite all odds, has been eminently successful. Its support to the predominantly Pashtun Mujahideen and the Taliban led to the defeat of two super powers in 40 years.
As the broker for the proposed agreement, it is back in favour with the US. An Afghan regime over which it exercises influence and control safeguards its western flank, keeps Pashtun nationalism under check, hopefully prevents inimical groups like Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan from finding a safe sanctuary and above all checkmates India’s influence.
A stable Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, which remains under its influence, is the logical goal it will seek.
Its interests coincide with those of China, its all weather ally, who has invested heavily in the CPEC. China is committed to extend the economic corridor to Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics.
A stable Afghanistan prevents support to Uighur terrorists. China also seeks Afghan minerals.
What Russia, Turkey want
Russia wants to retain its influence in the region. It does not want Afghanistan to act as a base to support terrorism in its territory or area of influence. Iran has similar interests to prevent support to the Sunni insurgents and safeguarde the Shia Hazara minority in Afghanistan.
Turkey wants to safeguard the interests of the Turkomen-Turkic minority apart from its ambition to be a leading Islamic power. The oil-rich Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia will play a major role with their financial power.
Writing on the wall for India
The return of the Taliban, either through the proposed peace agreement or by force of arms, is inevitable. In international realpolitik, there are no permanent friends or enemies. As an emerging power, India has no choice but to engage with the Taliban and be a part of the peace process in Afghanistan, failing which it will cease to be a major player in the region.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal.
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