United States’ special envoy for Afghan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad’s engagement with India in the effort at bringing peace to the war-torn nation by holding talks with the Taliban has been sporadic, almost reluctant, and clearly not to India’s satisfaction.
Since 25 March, Khalilzad has visited several countries — the United Kingdom, the European Union, Uzbekistan, Jordan and Qatar and Pakistan — that he feels have a stake in or could reinforce his efforts at reconciliation. But for some reason, India has not figured so far in his latest hectic itinerary.
Khalilzad’s first, much delayed visit to India was in early January, but it had coincided with the fourth edition of Raisina Dialogue, India’s annual geopolitical conference that witnesses a large number of international policy makers and analysts congregate in New Delhi. Khalilzad’s two-day visit then was followed by a meeting with the Indian foreign secretary in Washington DC in March.
During his earlier tenure as US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003-2005, Khalilzad had been supportive of India’s efforts at humanitarian assistance, infrastructure construction and capacity building. Clearly, Khalilzad then saw India’s effort as helpful to the US project of government consolidation and economic stabilisation in Afghanistan.
But Khalilzad’s hesitant approach towards India now reflects his assessment of Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban and opposition to India’s role in Afghanistan.
This is reminiscent of pre-9/11 strategies. India had been left out of the 6+2 grouping, which was formed at the behest of the United Nations and remained active from 1997 to 2001. The Germany-led informal consultations at the UN, before presenting resolutions on the subject, focused on Pakistan’s acquiescence. Even after 9/11, the US was initially mindful of Pakistan’s sensitivities, as it needed transit for its troops and material, and wanted to minimise Pakistani opposition. I learnt that the US had asked India then not to reopen its consulates in Afghanistan.
India supports an Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled process of reconciliation, which also safeguards the gains over the past 18 years, the constitutionally guaranteed rights and the universally recognised human rights.
India’s economic assistance to Afghanistan has had a meaningful impact. The first phase focused on quick impact and early delivery: buses for intra-city transportation, mid-day meals for returning school children, rebuilding of schools and hospitals. The next phase looked at infrastructure: roads, dams, power transmission lines, and community development projects. Capacity building was a constant refrain.
India could reintroduce itself significantly in Afghanistan at the time because of the support it received from the Afghans themselves. India had recognised and supported the government led by the Northern Alliance, which had been pushed into a corner, with control over only around 10 per cent of the Afghan territory, by 2001. They had a significant presence in the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. The new Afghan government supported India reopening its Consulates in Jalalabad, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat, and scaling up its economic engagement.
Through this effort, India’s stakes and relevance received international acknowledgement and reinforced Afghan recognition. India was integrally involved in all Afghanistan-related international discussions.
In the new evolving situation, therefore, India’s interests can be safeguarded essentially through the support it receives from the Afghans themselves.
Meanwhile, reports from Kabul now suggest that representatives from the Afghan government and the opposition will travel to Qatar around the middle of the month for exchanges (not negotiations) with the Taliban.
Taliban, which have so far refused to talk to the Afghan government, have through their spokesman said that any government representative attending the upcoming talks would be present in their personal capacity. The meeting taking place in a non-Afghan venue, and different from direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, are gains for the Taliban position.
The Ashraf Ghani government has also complained about not being fully consulted by Khalilzad. In remarks at Hudson Institute in Washington DC on 13 March, the visiting Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, described Khalilzad as conducting “surrender talks” with the Taliban. Separately, he accused him of seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government wanting to play the role of a “viceroy”. US protested these comments and has since asked for Mohib’s removal and has refused to attend any meetings where he is present. Former Interior Minister Amrullah Saleh, now a vice-presidential candidate, has been vocally critical of Pakistan, Taliban and the present Khalilzad strategy.
The Afghan government’s influence on the peace process will clearly gain if it is able to present a more united front with its non-Taliban opposition. The just announced composite delegation is a step in that direction. Several leading opposition figures, including former President Karzai and Parliament Speaker Qanooni, met with Taliban representatives in Moscow in early February, from which the government had been excluded.
The Taliban see themselves as winning at the moment. The US polity is exhausted after 18 years of engagement, exacerbated by Trump’s “America First” approach. Russia and Iran, which had earlier supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, have now reached out, united in their desire to undo the US presence in Afghanistan. There are regular reports of Taliban attacks on the ground and Afghan military casualties.
Nevertheless, if the Taliban effort is to endure, they will need to compromise. The Soviet project in Afghanistan collapsed after their withdrawal, dissolution of Soviet Union and inability of post-Soviet Russia to sustain its military and economic support. The US project in Afghanistan can endure beyond its military withdrawal if economic support and assistance to the Afghan military is sustained post drawdown. History has unfortunately shown that the US tends to lose interest if it its own interests are not directly served. If a hardline Taliban gains control, it is unlikely to have any major international support, except perhaps from Pakistan, which is currently facing its own economic challenges and is needing a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
The author is former Ambassador to the US and involved in dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan in the post 9/11 period.