India’s challenge grows

Afghanistan

As talks in Qatar involving US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives to end Afghanistan’s 17-year war appear to be gaining momentum, the Taliban has gone ahead and announced a 14-member negotiating team ahead of peace talks later this month. This team will be headed by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai and includes Anas Haqqani, the jailed brother of the leader of the Haqqani network, who is under detention in Kabul. The Taliban has been asking for his release to kickstart the negotiating process. The Taliban is also underscoring that these talks with Washington should lead to a formal recognition for its ‘political office’ in Qatar. At the same time, and in parallel, Russia organised its own talks where it brought together influential Afghans, including former President Hamid Karzai and Taliban leaders.

It is not readily evident what exactly is the endgame the US has in mind, but according to Khalilzad, the US has reached “an agreement in principle” with the Taliban on a framework that would provide guarantees that no terrorist group or individuals would be able to use Afghan soil for attacks against the US and its allies. Trump has made it clear that he remains committed to bringing American troops home after close to two decades of fighting despite there being growing concerns in the region and in Washington’s strategic circles that a rapid drawdown of forces in Afghanistan will do more harm than good. In his State of the Union speech last week, Trump interestingly left open the possibility that a small portion of the 11,000 American soldiers currently in Afghanistan would remain there to focus on counterterrorism.

Washington’s policy has also marginalised President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul at a time when presidential elections are around the corner. Engagement with the Taliban has become the key aspect of American outreach, with the group even finding a mention in Trump’s State of the Union address. For its part, the Taliban continues to insist that it won’t negotiate with the government in Kabul, which it views as an American stooge, and till such time as Washington announces a timetable for the withdrawal of its troops.

Despite the euphoria surrounding the talks, fundamental questions about the future trajectory of this engagement remain. Enforcing promises made by the Taliban to see American forces off from the battlefield is just one of the issues which will haunt the process. If the US continues to show that it is in a hurry to leave Afghanistan, then the Taliban would be more than happy to wait them out. They would say all the nice things to see the US leave and then would wait to see the Afghan government crumble without the supporting security and economic umbrella provided by the US. While the Taliban’s return to power is not a given, chaos is the most likely outcome.

It is also not readily evident that Trump’s desire to bring the troops back from Afghanistan quickly is shared across the US polity. Senators from across party lines in the US have recently backed an amendment opposing the US President’s plan to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan with a decisive majority, underlining that the troop withdrawal could allow the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group and al-Qaeda to re-group and destabilise both countries.

India’s support for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled” peace process is a longstanding one even as it has been trying to engage with a range of stakeholders in Afghanistan, including the Taliban in recent times.

Despite continuing to officially dissociate itself from the Taliban, New Delhi has underlined that it “will participate in all format of talks that could bring about peace and security the region.” India had sent retired officials to the Russia-led peace talks in November 2018 where the Taliban representatives were also present.

Unreliable partner

India has a range of interests to protect in Afghanistan and for far too long, New Delhi’s reliance on Washington’s role as a security provider has been its major vulnerability. It is indeed understandable for India to make its discomfort with the current American posture known to Washington. But it is quite extraordinary to complain that America is leaving India in the lurch. The Indian strategic community’s hectoring about American policy is hypocritical as the same community had almost unanimously concluded long back that India should not have a stronger military role in Afghanistan. It was always known that at some point, American appetite for this war in Afghanistan will decline.

If Afghanistan was marginal for Indian security interests, then India should have made only marginal investments in the country. But if the assessment was that Afghanistan is going to be critical for Indian interests in the region and beyond, then New Delhi should have been better prepared by now to protect its significant investments in the country. By not thinking cogently about India’s own endgame in Afghanistan, New Delhi has ended up being reactive to what others are doing. That could easily have been avoided.

As New Delhi gears up for a new set of equations in Afghanistan, it will not only have to work closely with the US to ensure that Pakistan doesn’t get a free hand in managing the Afghan transition but also with other regional stakeholders like China, Russia and Iran to ensure that the balance in Afghanistan’s polity is maintained. This will be important for Afghanistan’s survival as an independent and secure nation, as well as for regional security.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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India’s challenge grows

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