This is a grim reminder that the Taliban has re-claimed its legitimacy and standing in the future political landscape of Afghanistan to be the unchallenged custodian of Afghan destiny and future course of events that would unfold in the country.
By N K Bhatia
The long-awaited Intra Afghan Talks finally opened in Doha on 12 September 2020, after a wait of six months once key demands of the Taliban had been met. Taliban, the main antagonists to the legitimate democratic dispensation in Afghanistan, in the period of six months managed to show their resilience by not coming to the negotiation table until their two major demands had been met. First was the release of all 5000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1000 members of Afghan defence forces, which was initially opposed by the Afghan government and currently opposed by key NATO allies against the release of six hardcore members of Taliban involved in attacks on their soldiers and secondly, the commencement of withdrawal of US troops from Afghan soil, as committed by it in Peace Agreement of 29 February between the two sides.
Meanwhile Taliban, obstinate as ever, have not as yet fully honoured their part of the deal to ensure that it will not allow “any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security” or“pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies” by simply absolving itself from all terrorist attacks and activities that have shown no sign of reduction during the last six months after signing of the peace agreement.
The current stand of the Taliban and its current position of strength gained primarily as a result of Taliban-US Peace Agreement. This is a grim reminder that the Taliban has re-claimed its legitimacy and standing in the future political landscape of Afghanistan to be the unchallenged custodian of Afghan destiny and future course of events that would unfold in the country.
The commencement of talks and the forthcoming negotiations would be a long drawn process that is likely to run into months since major differences on the main issue of power-sharing within the realms of the Afghan constitution is negotiated, an instrument that the Taliban have refused to accept. Further the issues of democracy, civil rights, women’s rights and legitimacy of democratic institution, all anathema to the Taliban, that have come up post their annihilation two decades ago would pose formidable challenges.
The fact that the Taliban has been resurrected is a hard fact and reflects upon the changing realities of the region. The US by committing to withdraw from Afghanistan has only accepted what appeared inevitable after its intense engagement with the country. By pumping in billions of dollars and committing troops on the ground, it did not deliver what it had anticipated; a stable Afghanistan.
The withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan has left the field wide open for regional and emerging powers to rush in to protect their interests and secure their place with the emerging dispensation in the country.
The two most crucial entities that have taken early initiative are Iran and China.
Iran has always maintained close relations with the Taliban with Mullah Abdulah Ghani Baradar taking guidance from Iran during his visit to Iran in November 2019, prior to commencement of peace process in Doha. A common enemy in the USA and a puritan brand of religious bonding are the key to their close relations. Iran always provided safe sanctuaries to Taliban leaders on its soil to avoid being targeted by US-led forces.
Iran’s common borders with Afghanistan and its influence over the minority Hazara community would make it a dominant power player in Taliban led future dispensation in Afghanistan.
It is, therefore, no coincidence that two important Union Ministers paid back to back visits to Iran earlier this month to reset the course of bilateral relations in the backdrop emerging Taliban led equations in Afghanistan. That Iran remains crucial to Indian interests in the region is no secret. India taking the initiative is, therefore, a welcome sign for the emerging power play in Iran’s neighbourhood.
Of late, China has emerged as another major player in the affairs of Afghanistan. It may be recollected that it had hosted a series of meeting with Taliban leadership in the run-up to the peace talks at the behest of Pakistan.
Beyond that, Afghanistan-China relations revolve around economic cooperation. China’s main interest remains exploitation of its mineral wealth through the expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It would therefore look to expand the same through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with help of Pakistan. This poses a significant threat to Indian interests in taking forward its economic relations with Afghanistan and would need to be countered.
India seems to have reconciled to the emerging power play in Afghanistan and recalibrated its strategy by joining the opening of Intra Afghan peace talks in Doha. After the ceremony, Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, in a Twitter post, said: “Addressed the conference on Afghan peace negotiations at Doha today. Conveyed 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.” Besides India also deputed a senior officer to represent it at the talks in Doha.
India which has remained engaged with Afghanistan through people to people contacts and extending developmental aid worth the US $ 3 billion through nearly 400 projects need to shift focus from its “soft power diplomacy” to some hard play to be counted as a leading force with respect to its continued engagement with Afghanistan.
India also has to emerge from the past legacy of its engagement with Afghanistan through support to Northern Alliance and face the reality of current political contours emanating in the region, as discussed in these columns (FE.Com 09 May 2020). It may be worth considering to open up engagement with the Taliban. After all when the present government can hold negotiations with them, then why would India not do likewise?
Some inputs indicate that the Taliban may not be averse to such an engagement. If that discomforts the Taliban’s mentors, so much the better for India.
(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal.)