Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not deliberately invite President Ashraf Ghani to his oath taking ceremony on May 30 but he and his foreign policy team can never take their eyes off the Afghan situation for it directly impacts India’s interests at all times.
Despite the discomfiture of leaving Kabul’s cool confines for Delhi’s sweltering mid-summer heat Ghani would have been pleased to meet Modi as Afghanistan heads towards Presidential elections in late September. That would have provided the Afghan leader an opportunity to project himself to his domestic constituency in what may turn out to be a difficult election. As for Modi’s decision: it was motivated by SAARC reasons but was also taken—and on this count correctly— because India should always be manifestly neutral in Afghanistan’ sinternal affairs.
Now to the Afghan situation.
U.S.-Taliban negotiations have reached an impasse. Confident that the U.S. has lost the will to fight, the Taliban remains inflexible. Along with Pakistan, the group has effectively shown that Trump’s theatrical threats were hollow. In August 2017 Trump had taken personal ownership of his administration’s Afghanistan and South Asia policy. He had then declared that there was no time limit to the US presence in Afghanistan; it would maintain troops till the job of eliminating terrorism was done. He had demanded that Pakistan close down Taliban safe-havens on its territory or suffer grave consequences. He had, to Pakistan’s dismay, ‘legitimised’ India’s role in Afghanistan although in an economic context.
Barely fourteen months later, in October 2018, even as the ground situation in Afghanistan began to slip towards the Taliban, Trump authorised the U.S. to openly begin negotiations with the group. In doing so the world’s pre-eminent state which has remained stuck in the Afghan quagmire for seventeen years clearly signalled that its strategic patience was over and that the process of strategic retreat had begun. To put it bluntly the U.S. accepted defeat and was now willing to discuss the terms of surrender.
Why had such a situation come to pass? The answer lies in the refusal to send troops across the Durand Line into Pakistani territory to reverse Pakistani policy of supporting the Taliban. Why it did not do so is a different exploration.
Over the past eight months U.S. negotiators led by Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban led earlier by Sher Mohammad Stanikzai and in the last round, the sixth in number, held in April-May by Taliban senior leader Mullah Baradar have covered substantial ground but a firm agreement seems to have been elusive on any point.
The main consideration for the U.S. is to ensure that Afghanistan does not became a real base for an international terrorist group. It cannot afford a repeat of the 1990s when the Taliban allowed the al-Qaeda to become established in Afghanistan. From here Osama bin Laden encouraged the 9/11 attacks. It therefore wants guarantees and the permission to use a monitoring mechanism, from the Taliban that they will not allow such an eventuality to come to pass. Of course, that this reinforces the impression that the Taliban will play a major role in any future Afghan dispensation cannot escape any observer’s attention.
The Taliban want a time-table for the departure of foreign forces from Afghanistan. They would like the time to be reduced to a minimum but are willing to concede that it may not be immediate and at one go.
The other major points are the U.S. demand that the Taliban negotiates with the Afghan government and accepts a cease-fire. These are being firmly resisted by the Taliban. The former because they hold the Kabul arrangement to be a foreign, principally a US creation, and the latter because it will mean the abandonment of their principal leverage. The US negotiating position is also that nothing is settled till all is settled. Hence, incremental progress is ruled out for the time being because of the negotiating strategies of the two countries.
The U.S.-Taliban negotiation has led to the international legitimisation of a group that continues to have no scruples to undertake not only armed action but also violent and terrorist acts. It is a sad reality that the Taliban’s terror hardly attracts any focus. It is simply being overlooked as other countries are reinforcing their contacts with it. Russia is not only doing that but is also busy promoting an intra-Afghan dialogue.
It organised a second meeting in Moscow on May 28. While the National Unity Government (NUG) representatives were conspicuous by their absence—the Taliban simply would not accept to sit at a table with them—other important leaders including former President Hamid Karzai and some Presidential candidates, including Hanif Atmar were there. The Taliban maintained their inflexibility calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops to allow the restoration of peace in Afghanistan. In doing so the Taliban again signalled its confidence that it would succeed in overwhelming Afghan government forces. This may be not be easy, but shows the groups present thinking and motivation.
Meanwhile the political disarray in Kabul is acute and unless a drastic and unforeseen development occurs the country will be occupied in the next four months with Presidential elections. The three principal candidates are Ashraf Ghani, chief executive Abdullah and the former national security advisor Haneef Atmar.
As the incumbent Ghani has a head start and he has used his position to augment his networks. The Loya Jirgah organised by him last month which was boycotted by Abdullah and Atmar was inter alia directed to gain support. He has filled ministers and ambassadors’ positions though he is, with the Supreme Court’s approval, on an extra-constitutional continuance.
Abdullah was robbed of the election in 2014 but on this occasion he has come out again and built an impressive measure of support cutting across ethnic groups. He has the balance and the acumen to offer stable and good governance. Atmar is a canny politician and will not be a walk-over. The run-up to the election will with further fray the non-Taliban leadership and the key to the future will lie in a credible election which may impart a coherence to Kabul that the Taliban will find difficult to ignore.
The Afghan flux will also continue to witness violence and popular confidence in the future already low may slip further in the coming future. This may lead to further flight of capital and people. The Afghan political class have to consciously ensure that their campaign does not result in further fragmentation of the polity and does not impact the Afghan National Security Forces. The international community also has to play a role to avoid the country from slipping into chaos.
With Pakistan seeking to use its Taliban connections and with Ghani again trying to mend fences with Rawalpindi, India has to be an active observer of current Afghan events. In addition, it has to be a shrewd player too maintaining contacts with all Afghans, particularly its tried and tested friends who see an enduring coincidence of Afghan and Indian interests. In this context it cannot ignore the Taliban reality and has to begin active contacts with that group. It cannot be a diplomatic laggard. Countries that are so pay a heavy price.
(The author is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and ex-ambassador to Afghanistan. Views are personal)