The possible return of the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, is a challenge. But don’t count India out
After months of delay and wrangling, the intra-Afghan peace talks finally began in Doha, Qatar, last week. These talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban delegation saw envoys and organisations from over 15 countries participating, underscoring the wider regional and global ramifications of these negotiations. Yet, the challenges were clear from the opening remarks of the main interlocutors.
Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, was categorical that while “the legitimate demand of our people and the goal of peace is to end all forms of war and violence through political means,” they wanted a constitutional system in the country that would preserve democracy, elections, women’s rights, minority rights, rule of law, human and civil rights. In essence, he underlined the need to preserve the achievements of the past two decades. Mullah Baradar, Taliban’s deputy leader, tried to strike a conciliatory tone but the group has been clear about its goal: Preserving religious values and striving for an Islamic system.
The United States (US) has left the choice of the political system to the Afghan government and the Taliban but has not been shy of articulating its preferences. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, suggested “that protecting the rights of all Afghans is indeed the best way for you to break the cycle of violence”, even as he warned that the “choices and conduct” during the negotiations will affect both the size and scope of future US assistance. Earlier this year, in February, the Donald Trump administration decided to reduce its military footprint in Afghanistan; this is likely to go down to 4,500 troops by November. Though Washington is not convinced that the Taliban has weaned itself off completely from Al Qaeda or that it can be a trusted partner in ensuring peace in Afghanistan, there is a wider political consensus in the US on the need to bring troops back home. For Trump, claiming that he managed to conclude an “endless war” would be a significant policy success to highlight in his beleaguered re-election campaign.
So, in more ways than one, the preference matrix of key players in these negotiations is not in sync, posing fundamental challenges to both the process and the outcome. For the Afghan government, it is essential that violence by the Taliban should cease before any substantive talks on power-sharing can begin. But for the Taliban, their ability to unleash dramatic violence is a major leverage that they would like to exploit in political negotiations.
But the Taliban also seem to recognise that today’s Afghanistan is not the one they controlled from 1996 to 2001. Afghanistan’s nascent democracy has thrown up new voices, new actors and new aspirations. Reports of the Taliban engaging with China to build infrastructure after a US withdrawal is an indicator that governance is now one of the priorities which cannot be ignored. And this is where India comes into the picture.
Despite the pessimism in some quarters that India has lost it all in Afghanistan, ground realities are more complex. India’s approach is also evolving in line with the changing strategic environment. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s remarks at the start of the intra-Afghan talks in Doha conveyed India’s priorities even as they subtly underlined its reservations. For New Delhi, it is imperative that “the peace process must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled, respect national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan, promote human rights and democracy, ensure interest of minorities, women and the vulnerable, effectively address violence across the country.”
India’s primary concern emanates from a perceived Pakistani victory in managing to bring the Taliban back to political power in Kabul, thereby energising Islamist extremists in South Asia to target India. India’s regional security environment could be further undermined if the Taliban let Pakistan use Afghan territory for gaining strategic depth vis-à-vis India. Then there is the China factor. Given its close ties with Pakistan, Beijing would like to ensure that the Taliban sever their ties with Uighur extremists in Xinjiang. In exchange, China might emerge as the key economic benefactor of a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, nudging Pakistan to bring the country into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
These are significant challenges and New Delhi must be cognisant of such pressures. But it should also remain alive to new possibilities and alignments. India’s role as Afghanistan’s largest development partner cannot be easily dismissed; it also remains the most popular country for ordinary Afghans. New Delhi has strong ties with not only the US and Europe, which will be critical for Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction long after foreign military forces leave, but also with neighbours such as Russia and Iran, key for Afghanistan’s strategic autonomy. The Pashtun question which divides Pakistan and Afghanistan also gives New Delhi significant leverage. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Taliban have been signalling their intent to engage with India. They seem to get the salience of New Delhi in the Afghan matrix much better than many in India.