Afghanistan’s decades-old conflict has entered a new phase following the US’ decision to withdraw all its troops from the country by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The decision has forced many players to re-evaluate their assumptions, priorities and strategies vis a vis Afghanistan. The emerging dilemma for New Delhi is the wisdom and price of preserving its two decades old investment in a democratic constitutional order in Kabul — to join the chorus of those who see the future in the Taliban’s imminent and inevitable victory or to bid farewell to its Afghanistan mission.
The American failure
The February 2020 US-Taliban Doha Agreement was essentially a ‘safe passage’ for the US to have a dignified departure from Afghanistan. Washington additionally wished to utilise the Agreement to obtain other benefits, including a meaningful peace process, regional consensus, establishing a power-sharing government between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and securing its military and strategic assets in the country. In order to realise its wishes, Washington resorted to a fierce political and diplomatic campaign to create a “peace momentum”, which included imposing a harsh demand on the Afghan government to release over 5,000 Taliban prisoners; actively promoting “regime change” among Afghan political class; coercing other countries, including India, to embrace the Taliban and creating media hype about a“reformed Taliban”.
As with other cases such as Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Washington proved far weaker in attaining any of its wishes and expectations from its new stand on the Taliban. Neither Taliban’s Islamo-fascist ideology, nor Pakistan’s geopolitical ambition are ready and capable of co-existing with an Afghan polity and settlement that is governed by a plural, progressive and independent constitutional order.
Unlike NATO’s preferred phrase that “there is no military solution”, tragically, for the Taliban and their various foes in the country, there is only a military solution to the Afghan conflict. The Taliban accord their perceived victory over the US/NATO to their military resolve and sacrifice, rather than playing politics in the name of peace and negotiation. For the anti-Taliban coalition, the stats justify their preference for a “military solution” over futile “peace shows”. In 80 per cent of all conflicts involving insurgency/irregular warfare from 1815 to date, the government defeated its irregular foe (victory measured by whether the counter-insurgent government stayed in power and was able to vanquish the threat for at least a decade).
Examples of governments/counter-insurgents’ victory include Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Syria, Pakistani Taliban, Iraq, Turkey, Kashmir, Tajikistan and Balochistan. Afghanistan has experienced both government’s victory and insurgents’ triumph. Following the Soviet’s withdrawal in 1988, Dr Najib-led government survived three years of Mujahideen onslaught. It collapsed once it lost the Soviet’s support and ensuing internal factionalisation. During the last four decades, India’s policy has consistently been Afghan State-centric. However, Delhi did not have the political will and/or the leverage to protect its Afghan allies, the friendly governments of Dr Najib and later Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani. The Ashraf Ghani-led government is the third Afghan dispensation that tests Delhi’s resolve and commitment.
India’s options in Afghanistan
Each course of action (perseverance, bandwagon, abandonment) has serious implications for India with associated risk, cost and benefit.
Staying the course of its Kabul-centric post-2001 policy would compel Delhi to leave its safe corner that allowed India to have a comfortable “developmental partnership” while paying lip service to a “strategic partnership” with the Afghan State. The end state for Delhi’s perseverance would be an Afghan settlement in which the Taliban would have become a non-violent political stakeholder in a democratic constitutional order. The South Asian pillar of such a settlement can be best described by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visionary framework: ‘Breakfast in Kabul, lunch in Lahore and Dinner in Delhi’. The UN must play a leading role, including in filling the emerging security vacuum by deploying its peacekeeping mission for Afghanistan. A UN peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan can bring together Pakistan and India in preventing the country’s slide toward anarchy and State breakdown.
Delhi can also succumb to the early temptation and bandwagon others in treating the Taliban as the “government-in-waiting” — a course that was chosen by segments of Iranian, Russian, and British governments, alongside Taliban’s strategic partners, Pakistan, Qatar and al-Qaeda. The Taliban have outsmarted the opportunistic players by their insistence on their definition of war and peace. The prospect of Taliban’s easy march to Kabul and the restoration of their Emirate is, however, very low. The Taliban will face a diverse coalition of foes who would fight them for different reasons.
Even in the unlikely event of Taliban’s victory, Kabul would resemble Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-held Kashmir. There would not be any area of mutuality between the Islamic Emirate of Taliban and India. In fact, it would be China to list the geopolitical and economic dividends of a restored Islamic Emirate of Taliban, by incorporating Afghanistan into its regional flagship CPEC. Despite visible differences between various Islamist political entities across the region, there is hardly any Islamist movement or government that can be judged as decently functioning and/or peaceful. Therefore, a restored Islamic Emirate of Taliban would join the long list of violent, failing, authoritarian Islamist movements and governments. As such, Pakistan’s honeymoon would also be very brief, should its three decades of investment in the Taliban project bear fruition. Afghanistan has shown that monopolistic politics are eventually doomed to fail, domestically or externally.
Abandoning Afghanistan is also a policy option for New Delhi; similar to the Tibet situation when in December 1962, India closed its consulate general in Lhasa, in the aftermath of its war with China. India has already shut its two Afghan consulates in Herat and Jalalabad.
While the Afghan people have borne the brunt of nearly five decades of conflict, there is hardly any other country in the neighbourhood and beyond that has escaped unharmed. Investing in an inclusive and sustainable Afghan political settlement would be beneficial for all domestic and external stakeholders. For this endeavour to succeed, it has to be based on the pillars of defence, development, diplomacy, democracy and dialogue.
The author is director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and former senior policy adviser in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)