When the terrorism-afflicted world was looking for the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan on 12 September 2001, they found it alive because it had been sustained by funding from India, Iran and Russia.
The series of unfortunate events that plunged Afghanistan into the dark was prompted by India’s perplexing withdrawal of support to President Mohammad Najibullah. It had allowed myriad marauding groups to rain havoc on Kabul in the darkest days of Afghanistan. But more darkness was to come in the form of Taliban, midwifed by a Pakistan desperate for an illusory ‘strategic depth’ on its western borders.
Dark days then came for India, which found a fickle light in the form of the Northern Alliance. Against overwhelming odds, and seeking to contain an increasing Pakistani presence in the Kashmiri insurgency, India joined hands with Iran and Russia to retain a toehold in Afghanistan. On 12 September 2001, that investment began to pay dividends.
An agreement to bring Taliban back
Now, however, many in India believe another period of darkness looms ahead as the US and the Taliban signed an ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’. The agreement was signed by US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad and principle negotiator for the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Doha, Qatar, on 29 February 2020.
This agreement will pave the way for the Taliban to retake Kabul, and power in Afghanistan. Just like the US dumped their Kurdish allies in Syria and allowed the Turkish army to run havoc, the Taliban would do the same with the government of President Ashraf Ghani. But that may not be as easy as Kurdish turnaround.
Since the 2001 eviction of the Taliban and their millenarian mates Al-Qaeda, many countries have invested too many lives and monies in Afghanistan to simply let it fritter away all over again. There is now a serious constituency in the democratic world that does not want the Taliban type of darkness to once again descend on Afghanistan.
There is also a large Afghan constituency that would not want another medievalist Taliban regime installed in power. And it is not simply motivated by women’s rights or education, but the Afghans want a peaceful life.
In the last almost 20 years, a significant number of stakeholders in peace have been created in Afghanistan, and they come from all communities and regions. This includes Pashtun too, even though Pakistan has long claimed the Taliban as their sole representatives.
No one’s deal
There are aspects of the agreement that are too far-fetched to be implemented within the time period specified. US President Donald Trump may want to show progress so as to boost his re-election chances, but there is no guarantee that Afghans will play along, especially those currently in power. There are many sticking points, most of all the prisoner exchange timeline, which undermines the credibility of a democratically elected government.
President Ghani has already voiced his opposition to such deadlines, and there will be more such hurdles cropping up as the intra-Afghan talks get underway.
It isn’t hunky-dory for Pakistan either, through whose prism Indians largely tend to analyse Afghanistan. While it has earned a thank you note from the Taliban for the success of the agreement, Pakistan no reason to believe success is inevitable for Islamabad or Rawalpindi.
Even as Afghanistan has changed in the two decades of freedom, the Taliban too has evolved from the stray-filled huts of Mullah Umar types to the current luxury-living leaders like Mullah Baradar and Sher Mohammad Stanikzai, the principal negotiators. Life in Quetta under Pakistani protection may have been largely safe but it wasn’t without its share of skulduggery and backstabbing. This agreement, thus, is a result of the Taliban making compromises with the US, which, in turn, has also made a major climbdown, by negotiating with the Taliban in the first place.
India’s future role
Since the Northern Alliance merged into the government of former President Hamid Karzai, India has invested, overtly, more than three billion dollars in Afghanistan, in various Infrastructure projects. There is tremendous goodwill for India, but it doesn’t stand to survive if it is not backed by hard-nosed policies. Anyone who believes that fishing in troubled waters is going to secure a good catch is living in cloud cuckoo land. That period ended with the globalisation of terror starting 11 September 2001.
India has to remain engaged in Afghanistan, even ramp up its scope of activities. There is still a lot that needs to be done in terms of infrastructure, but India could change the game by engaging a greater number of Afghan contractors, thus enlarging the community of stakeholders.
It must also remain involved on the security front, and increase the numbers it is training. It is time police training becomes bigger too, for it is these institutions of the state that will inspire confidence among the bystanders in Afghanistan.
It is now a question of playing the big game, and that can only happen when minds are big on the job. After more than three billion dollars, Indian lives lost in Kabul and elsewhere, India shot itself in the foot in December 2019 when it passed a law – the Citizenship Amendment Act – that says Afghanistan persecutes its minorities. That is all it takes for decades of goodwill to go up in a jiffy.
The author is a Congress leader and Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert. Views are personal.