Author : Harsh V. Pant

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 19, 2020
India’s Afghanistan dilemma

During this period of lockdown, India had a rare visit from the US Special Representative for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad recently. 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.

Last week’s horrific attack on a Kabul hospital which led to the killing 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 claims and counterclaims. It was only on Sunday that a power sharing arrangement could be finalised between President Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah which allows Ghani to stay on as President sharing an equal number of ministries with Abdullah Abdullah who will lead peace talks with the Taliban.

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 US, it is imperative to revive the dying peace process in Afghanistan, especially as November 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 US-Taliban pact can be operationalised.

India has been cautious in its approach so far even though it had welcomed the initial pact. It has put its weight behind the Ghani government and would want the Taliban to recognise the democratic structures in Afghanistan before any kind of engagement with the Taliban can be envisioned.

The Taliban of today is also quite 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 have come closer to power, they too, like other Afghan stakeholders, have recognised the need to engage with New Delhi. Pakistan has its own agenda vis-a-vis Afghanistan but the Taliban, while being used by Pakistan, have also 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 US departs from the nation. For all its bravado and so called ‘success’ in upstaging the US in Afghanistan, Pakistan is a nation that is on the verge of failing and can hardly sustain itself, let alone another nation. Even during the ongoing Covid-19 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 that India remains 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 a country like India that wants to emphasise the importance of institutions for the future of Afghanistan. The Taliban is yet to distance itself from terror groups such as al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed that have a presence in Afghanistan and target India. New Delhi recognises that as the US troops begin to depart from the war torn nation, Indian projects and broader interests might become the soft targets for Pakistan and its proxies.

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

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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