I must also make clear to you, Mr. President, that as our policy process continues in Washington, the United States has not ruled out any option,” wrote US Secretary of State Antony Blinken – in a letter leaked by Afghanistan’s TOLOnews – to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Blinken continued, “We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1st.” The frustration in Blinken’s tenor is unmistakable. The message to Afghanistan is clear: support the peace process with the Taliban or make room for someone who will.
Blinken’s letter to Ghani is not very different from Mikhail Gorbachev’s message to the Soviet-backed Afghan President Babrak Karmal. In the summer of 1986, as the Russian Politburo laid out plans for a full military withdrawal, Gorbachev told Karmal, “If you want to survive, you’ll have to broaden the regime’s social base, forget about socialism, and share power.” A few months later, the plans to withdraw were completed. When Karmal resisted, he was replaced.
A US-Afghan deadlock
This is not to say that Ghani can or will be replaced in the same way. After all, the Joe Biden presidency has made it a mission to demonstrate “that democracy can still deliver”. Ghani was, in principle, voted into power.
Afghanistan is potentially the only policy imperative that has witnessed a seamless continuity between the erstwhile Donald J. Trump presidency and the current Joe Biden administration. Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born special envoy to both Trump and Biden, serves as the living bridge between the two presidencies. ‘Hurricane Zal’, as he is apparently known in Kabul, in March 2020, reportedly suggested the creation of an interim government that includes the Taliban.
Predictably, Ghani and other senior Afghan officials rejected the proposal. “Political power in Afghanistan has a gate,” Ghani feverishly stated on the floor of the Indian-built Afghan parliament, after having met with Khalilzad. “The key,” he made clear, “is the vote of the Afghan people.” No doubt, in the following weeks and months, detailed plans will be put to test. Either through the path of democracy or forced nomination, Taliban officials can be expected in the near future to be seated in a parliament inaugurated, in 2015, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Simply put, there are no good or even near-good options.
A seat at the table. For what?
For India, the question is more about managing the existing and impending instability, and continuing to have a degree of influence in Kabul. To this end, the United States has played a crucial role, presently, in engaging with India and making sure that it has a seat at the high table.
In the letter to Ghani, Blinken laid bare his plans to work with the United Nations (UN) to “convene foreign ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India, and the United States” with the view to “discuss a unified approach to finding peace”.
Being part of the international grouping is of course excellent news. Equally, it ought to be clear that the potential of an effective ‘unified approach’ is unlikely to deliver peace. To many in Kabul, the UN-organised process harks back to the days of the 1988 Geneva Accords, which did little more than provide a degree of legitimacy for the withdrawal of Soviet troops, in 1989. In turn, it led to the outbreak of a civil war that is being fought to date.
Indian diplomats and officials working in Kabul have been witness to the see-saw in American interest in India, which has oscillated between cooperation and isolation. There is no doubt that India must work with the United States, the best it can. Yet, in Afghanistan, it is essential that India maintains its own way. It should provide even more military support to Afghan security forces; directly train and increase Afghanistan’s intelligence capabilities; and, as outlined in detail in existing analysis, continue to support development and infrastructure projects.
These assets will not be protected in the same way as they were a decade ago, by American-led troops. There is a very good chance that many of these initiatives will be scuttled by competing forces in Afghanistan. No doubt, Pakistan, China, and even the United States may well advocate a more limited role for India while building a consensus for a ‘unified’ approach to peace.
India’s Taliban dilemma
Notwithstanding these perfectly reasonable sets of arguments, India made a commitment to Afghanistan.
India’s assistance is what has protected its brand – as a builder – within Afghanistan, despite every attempt by Pakistan to dislocate the political and even emotional bond between the Afghan ‘street’ and India.
At worst, the investment can be audited away as sunk costs. On the other hand, it could, even in a modest way, have demonstrative value in the confidence that India has in Afghanistan’s elected leadership, and in the ideal of democracy.
This is not to argue that India ought to be swayed by the heady tailwinds of democracy. This is as much about reputation as it is about self-interest. An investment in Afghanistan’s growth should be complimented by a more active engagement of Taliban leaders. This has not always been an easy debate among diplomats and officials in New Delhi. India’s sleuths are far more comfortable talking to the enemy. For reasons of coercion or choice, leading members of this group remain beholden to Pakistan. This is a fact, but it is also immaterial. The Taliban are a reality that is clearly not going away.
Formally and openly engaging the group is a high-cost strategy. Admittedly, it risks undermining the authority of those who won an election. Yet, India has long supported dissidents and insurgents to stand for elections within its own boundaries. Supporting President Ghani’s appeal to do the same with the Taliban is a risk India can absorb.
In sum, having a seat at the high table is of course significant. Working much more closely with the United States is desirable. In the end, however, what will matter is re-designing India’s way in a country with which it signed a Treaty of Friendship as far back as 1950.
The author is the director of Carnegie India. Views are personal.
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