The emerging trends from the hurried efforts to resolve the Afghan tangle presage new security challenges to India. The US desire to withdraw its troops from there at the earliest have resulted in two separate peace processes with different stakeholders and different underlying objectives. The Taliban, however, are common negotiators. The new dimensions provide legitimacy to the Taliban and a government led by this group would not be in India’s interest.
The US under Trump had been working to withdraw its troops which he had promised at the time of his election and now keeping in view the 2020 elections, he has accelerated his efforts to find a way out to withdraw the troops at the earliest. The US policy was flawed in Afghanistan. The US while attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan never took any action against Pakistan where the Taliban are enjoying sanctuaries. The US in fact rewarded Pakistan by providing assistance of more than $33 billion since 2002. Now in desperation to leave, Trump released five hardened Taliban terrorists from Guantanamo, termed by late US Senator McCain as ‘the hardest of the hard core’ to meet the precondition of the Taliban for negotiations. The US changed its policy from Afghan-led and Afghan- owned peace process to Taliban-led and Taliban-owned peace process. This deal was made without consulting the elected Afghan government. In the proces, it effectively delegitimised the Afghan government which was formed after national elections- an objective of the Taliban. Trump did not consult any other neighbouring country as also the Indian Government which is deeply involved in economic development in that country risking the lives of its workers and security forces protecting them. By its acts, the US has placed the Taliban in the central position and the most important group for resolving the problem in that country. The Taliban from the cause of the problem have emerged as the solution of the problem. In January, the U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad held a series of direct talks with Taliban negotiators in the Qatari capital, Doha, culminating in the basic framework of a possible peace deal.
The other peace negotiations were sponsored by Russia. Realising that the US was in a hurry to withdraw, Russia took action to unite all sections of the Afghan society for arriving at political solution under the Moscow Format, which echoed the Indian stance. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed on the need for ‘an inclusive inter Afghan dialogue to advance the peace process for the national reconciliation and the early establishment for the peace in Afghanistan’. The High Peace Council of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and Taliban representatives were present in this meeting. The US, Iran, China, Pakistan and the Central Asian Republic also sent their representatives. India did not send any official delegation, but was represented at the meeting by TCA Raghavan, head of the foreign ministry-run Indian Council for World Affairs, and Amar Sinha, a former Indian envoy to Kabul. Both are experts on the region. India considered it necessary to keep itself informed about the developments.
A second conference organised in Moscow by the Afghan Diaspora leaders based in that country the 5th-6th February 2019. This conference has been attended by representatives from Afghanistan’s neighbours, opposition politicians, and the same Taliban negotiators that met with the American delegation in Doha. After the talks, a joint declaration was issued that highlights nine key points they agreed on. Withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, supporting Doha peace talks, removing Taliban members’ names from the UN blacklist, the release of Taliban prisoners and official inauguration of Taliban’s political office in Qatar are among the agreements reached in Moscow talks. Before the declaration was released, Hamid Karzai the former President said the main issues they focused on in Moscow were peace and stability in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country. Significantly, former national security advisor Mohammad Haneef Atmar told the reporters that they reached an agreement that says the intra-Afghan negotiations should be inclusive which means the Afghan government will be included in future talks.
Notwithstanding the above optimistic views expressed in the peace processes, the ground situation remains grave. In essence, the Taliban have gained importance and have frozen out the elected Afghan government. The Russians perceived the US led peace process as the US plan to monopolise the peace talks with the Taliban that was conducted in secrecy while keeping the regional countries in the dark. Hence they took another initiative. The US unilateralist action has increased the salience of Russia and Iran in India’s Afghan policy. Now India has to take well calculated steps for protecting its own interests. While there is a remote possibility for a unified government in Afghanistan given different factions controlling different parts, the current moves give the Taliban a higher position. This in turn would allow the ISI and Pak Army unleash more jihadis in Kashmir and their efforts to radicalise the region would be accelerated. The situation demands that we keep a close watch on both the processes and take proactive steps to maintain close relations with the elected government. For this India should hold bilateral discussions with Afghan government as also other political leaders who would be contesting the next presidential election. India cannot afford to remain out of the country that Pakistan is assiduously trying. Our geography does not allow us a choice. At the same time, India needs to accelerate the development of Chabahar port to maintain connectivity with Central Asia and Afghanistan.