Musings from afar

New Delhi and the Kabul conundrum

India will have to accept that despite its history with the Taliban and continuing concerns, it will need a proactive engagement policy for durable peace.

 |  Musings from afar  |  4-minute read |   16-05-2020
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During this lockdown, India had a rare visit from the US Special Representative for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad last week. He was on a three nation tour which took him to Doha, Delhi and Islamabad, where he sought support "for an immediate reduction in violence, accelerated time line for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, and cooperation among all sides in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic in Afghanistan." Even as the coronavirus pandemic ravages Afghanistan, the problems with the so called Afghan peace process are out in the open and violence continues unabated. This week's horrific attack on a Kabul hospital which led to the deaths of 24 people, including 16 women and two newborns, has ratcheted up tensions with President Ashraf Ghani ordering the military to switch to offensive mode and the Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib tweeting "There seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in 'peace talks'." The US-Taliban agreement, signed with much fanfare in April remains in limbo as differences persist between the Taliban and the Afghan government over the release of prisoners. The deadline of March 10 for intra-Afghan dialogue to begin is long gone amidst all these conflicting claims and counterclaims.

Attempts at peace

During his India visit Khalilzad called on External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar and National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, arguing that "New Delhi needs to be part of the process if we need to contribute effectively to the (Afghan) peace process." New Delhi, for its part, reiterated its "continued support for strengthening peace, security, unity, democratic and inclusive polity" and "protection of rights of all sections of the Afghan society, including Afghan Hindus and Sikhs" even as it raised the issue of terror emanating from Pakistan. For the United States, it is imperative to revive the dying peace process in Afghanistan, especially as November's Presidential elections come closer and President Donald Trump's poll numbers take a dip due to the health and economic situation. Khalilzad's Doha trip saw him meeting Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Baradar to push for the "speedy release of prisoners and intra-Afghan talks," so that the United States-Taliban pact can be operationalised.

The big picture

India has been cautious in its approach even though it had welcomed the initial pact. It has put its weight behind the Ghani government and would want the Taliban to recognise democratic structures in Afghanistan before any engagement with the Taliban can be envisioned. The Taliban today is also different and there is a diversity of views within the apparently monolithic looking structure. Their spokesperson has indicated that they do see the value in having stable ties with neighbours including India and has welcomed India's "contribution and cooperation in the reconstruction of future Afghanistan." Last year after India's decision to revoke Article 370, the Taliban had underlined the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir should not be linked with the situation in Afghanistan, distancing itself from the Pakistani criticism of the Indian move. As the Taliban comes closer to power, they, like other Afghan stakeholders, have recognised the need to engage with New Delhi.

At the same time, Pakistan has its own agenda vis-a-vis Afghanistan but the Taliban, while being used by Pakistan, have become independent agents in their own right. India's substantive role in Afghanistan as an economic player and as a builder of key capacities will be essential for whoever might be in power, especially after the United States departs from the nation. For all its bravado and so called 'success' in upstaging the United States in Afghanistan, Pakistan is on the verge of failing and can hardly sustain itself, let alone another nation. Even during the pandemic, India has been supplying food and medical aid to Afghanistan on a regular basis, following its longstanding policy of helping ordinary Afghans. It is true India is less than enthused with the trajectory of the 'peace process' as concerns abound about the continuing violence and the Taliban's refusal to recognise the Afghan government. The political system in Kabul remains bitterly divided, making it difficult for India, which wants to emphasise the importance of institutions for Afghanistan's future. The Taliban is yet to distance itself from terror groups such as Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which target India. New Delhi recognises that as American troops depart from Afghanistan, Indian projects broader interests which might become soft targets for Pakistan and its proxies.

Time to act decisively

It is for these reasons that India will have to find a modus vivendi with the Taliban. Much will depend on how the intra-Afghan dialogue proceeds but it seems clear that the Taliban will be part of the Afghan political structure in some way. Even as they recognise that New Delhi cannot be sidelined in Afghanistan because Pakistan says so, India too will have to accept that despite its history with the Taliban and continuing concerns, it will need a proactive engagement policy if its considerable equities in Afghanistan and the wider region are to be preserved.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Writer

Harsh V Pant Harsh V Pant

The writer is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is India's Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins).

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