India’s Ministry of External Affairs in a cryptic statement after the meeting between two sides reiterated that the US recognised “India's constructive contribution to economic development, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan”.
By Brig NK Bhatia
The US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Mr ZalmayKhalilzad paid a flying visit to India on 7 May 2020 to engage with Indian strategic establishment. The US obviously sees a role for India in the future of Afghanistan to warrant the visit of their main point’s man in a period of global crisis unleashed by Corona epidemic. While the details of closed-door negotiations are not known, it is not difficult to fathom the agenda of the meeting.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs in a cryptic statement after the meeting between two sides reiterated that the US recognised “India’s constructive contribution to economic development, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan”. India, in turn, expressed “deep concerns at the upsurge in violence and asked for an immediate ceasefire and need for strengthening peace, security, unity, democratic and inclusive polity and protection of rights of all sections of the Afghan society.
The visit of Mr Khalilzad needs to be seen beyond the formal official statement of Indian and US sides and increasing uncertainty on the ground where new Afghan government led by Mr Ashraf Ghani has dug in its heels and refused to blindly follow the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban) and the United States of America” signed in Doha on 29 February without the participation of Afghan government.
The peace deal is not making any headway has been brought out clearly in the US Congressional report of 01 May 2020. That may be one of the explanations for Mr Khalilzad’s rushed visit to India to chalk out a future US strategy.
The main reason quoted in the report is the escalation of violence against Afghan forces, a dispute over exchange of prisoners, the political crisis in Afghanistan wherein the officially declared President Mr Ghani is facing a challenge from Mr Abdullah and the COVID epidemic. As a result, the Intra Afghan talks that were scheduled from 10 March 2020 have not taken off, putting the whole Agreement in jeopardy. The only positive movement from the Afghan government has been the nomination of a 21 member Afghan negotiation team which has been rejected by Taliban.
The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan is contingent upon a comprehensive peace agreement and opening up of a dialogue between the Afghan government and Taliban. Unfortunately, that has not happened as the Taliban refuses to negotiate with the Afghan government which it does not recognise.
That’s where the dilemma of US government lies. It is keen to see fructification of the Agreement that it reached with Taliban, howsoever flawed. Its main problem lies to get the warring sides to start negotiations.
India’s strength lies in having built up a trove of goodwill over the years by remaining engaged with the political dispensation in Afghanistan. It has nurtured excellent relations, firstly with Mr Karzai and after him with Mr Ashraf Ghani, although Mr Ghaniafter his election in September 2014 had tried to forge close relations with Pakistan only to be frustrated with Islamabad’s negative role and direct interference in Afghanistan’s affairs and trying to destabilise his government. India’s relations with Mr Abdullah who has been an alternate power centre are well known.
Mr Khalilzad’s visit to India, therefore, should be seen to seek Indian support for its endeavour to impress upon Afghan political dispensation to come around from its stated position and move ahead with US broad agenda of facilitating negotiations between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban.
India is the largest regional contributor to Afghan reconstruction having provided an assistance of nearly US $ three billion, mostly on humanitarian and development activities. It enjoys goodwill and open support amongst all sections of Afghan society with deep-rooted cultural ties.
On the other hand USA realises that Pakistan has been playing a negative role in Afghan affairs and controls the main levers of Taliban leadership by providing them with safe sanctuaries and nurturing and directing their activities. Similarly, its support to other terrorist groups, mainly Haqqani Network, is leading to worsening of the situation in Afghanistan.
Hence a realisation by the US of Indian role to take a lead to stabilize the situation.
So far India has shown no inclination to be a major player in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and supports an Afghan-led Afghan-owned peace initiative.
By pushing India to take the lead USA has probably realised that India can make a positive difference to Afghan peace by getting to leverage its connections with their political leadership. It also provides an opportunity for India to open up channels with Afghanistan government’s main adversaries, the Taliban, by insisting upon them that India would not be averse to dealing with them should they pursue an agenda for Afghanistan reconciliation.
Taliban maybe looking for an opportunity to break away from Pakistan stranglehold to chart out an independent path by taking on board all sections of Afghan society for a futuristic settlement to the Afghan problem.
With current Taliban leadership known to be based in Doha and in the shadow of the USA provides India with an opportunity to open up a dialogue with the Taliban. Mullah Baradar, the current Taliban chief negotiator in Qatar was held by Pakistan for close to 10 years. Similarly, many more senior leaders would want to break free. In the past Taliban leaders have shown an inclination to chalk out an independent path without the baggage of Pakistani patronage leading to factional fights.
Finally, Taliban in their three decades of survival would be keen to make a clean break from the shackles of their Pakistani tormentors and seen as an organisation that can pursue its own destiny independently.
The current impasse in Afghanistan is thus an opportunity for India to take the lead and play a facilitator to Afghan impasse.
(The author is Indian army Veteran. Views expressed are personal.)