Americans are tasting the inherent futility of their misadventure and Afghanistan is tuning into their Vietnam
By Amb Anil Trigunayat
After 9/11, US rushed into Afghanistan where Kings feared to tread. It was for nothing that it is infamously known as the “Grave Yard of the Kings and Empires”. Russians met their Waterloo, and the Americans are tasting the inherent futility of their misadventure and Afghanistan is tuning into their Vietnam. They have been wanting an early exit for at least through the last two Administrations. Trump had expedited the progress by entering a bilateral deal with the Taliban whom it declared a ‘Pariah” but decided to bed with them in concert with Pakistan and Qatar. Afterall Taliban was the creation of US, Pakistan and Saudi assistance to defeat the Soviets in 1980s in Afghanistan. The project became untenable and only custodian remained the deep state in Pakistan and Us continued to pander and Doha Agreement of last February was expected to be the facilitator for a somewhat face-saving exit from an unwinnable theatre of war that the history has consigned to. Several US allies have already retracted in the face of adversity. The Biden Administration is also following suit but is not sure of the way the Taliban would conduct itself and honour the terms it had agreed to in Doha and thereafter. A violent peace prevails. The US wishes to ensure some semblance of stability before it finally calls it quits. Quit it will! May 1, 2021 is set to be the date.
A controversy has arisen about a letter by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to President Ashraf Ghani which asks the UN to convene a meeting of representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russian China , Iran, US and India that could be hosted by Turkey to develop a unified approach. A new “Istanbul process” could ensue. The Talks from bilateral to trilateral move to the multilateral domain under the aegis of the UN. All real stakeholders are expected to be part of the Club that might take over greater responsibilities post US exit. It may stabilise the move forward as Washington urges Taliban and current establishment to strive for a more representative government.
Russians have been involved in Afghanistan for decades now trying to redeem their influence and even provided assistance and transit to US troops and equipment in good times. Even if they wished US not to have a permanent base in Afghanistan, they would prefer it not to completely disengage and leave for the drug trafficking and other security issues that have a direct impact on Moscow’s calculations. China has quietly built its economic base in Afghanistan and considers it important even for its CPEC and works in tandem with Pakistan to have closer access to Taliban who in either case will have to be reckoned with in due course. As such China does not care which government or religious dispensation governs the intractable State.
Iran is an important neighbour of Afghanistan and the US has remained in touch with their Iranian interlocutors. US Special envoy Khalilzad speaking at an Indian Think Tank confirmed that Iranian assistance is useful and significant in achieving stability in Afghanistan. Neighbours are often vulnerable when the borders are rife with terrorism or instability. Iran is no exception apart from its historical people to people connect. Inclusion of Iran therefore is important in the Afghan as well as broader US-Iran context. It provides Iran a comforting sense of importance as a constructive actor. As such President Biden is trying to revive the JCPOA and has displayed several CBMs (Confidence Building measures including release of blocked funds in Iraq and humanitarian relief measures).
Media is rife with the inclusion of India by the US and exclusion of it by Russia in finding a solution in Afghanistan especially in a cohort with Pakistan that claims a genuine handle over Taliban. Russians have denied that. Pakistan is obviously opposed to India gaining any traction. It was in fact for the first time that two former Indian Ambassadors to Pakistan and Afghanistan attended Talks in Moscow in an unofficial capacity with a listening brief. Unless one attributes a literal meaning to such demarches there is more than meets the eye whenever one is present at the international negotiations. Indian Ambassador to Qatar represented at the signing of the Doha Agreement while Indian Foreign Secretary was in Kabul to assure the Afghan Government that it stood by the people of Afghanistan.Of course, India did not believe in “Good Taliban and Bad Taliban” and had no overt engagement with them, but it believes in an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process where certain red lines need not be crossed. Taliban are also part of Afghanistan. Of late they have shown understanding of India’s position be it on J&K or Abrogation of Art 370. Arguably, a controversy is created because it is simply sensational.
Having a historical and civilizational connect India has been steadfast in its support to Afghan people especially in infrastructural development, education,scholarships, training and capacity building across the spectrum. People to People Relations and Cultural connect remain strong. Proverbial “Kabuliwallah” and Bollywood films as well as the sturdy image of the Pathan remained engraved in the Indian psyche as a gold standard of honesty. Across Afghanistan, India is probably the only country that evokes respect, admiration, and affection of the Afghan people as per polls and surveys. India’s wheat to vaccine diplomacy has further strengthened the caring bonds of brotherhood and friendship.
India is the largest non-western donor and nearly all projects are grant based. So far India has provided over $ 3bn in assistance. Making use of the fresh US$ 1 billion development assistance announced by India and Afghanistan launched a ‘New Development Partnerships To identify priorities and projects where Afghanistan needed India’s assistance. India agreed to implement important new projects such as the Shahtoot Dam and drinking water project for Kabul that would also facilitate irrigation; water supply for Charikar City; road connectivity to Band-e-Amir in Bamyan Province that would promote tourism; low-cost housing for returning Afghan refugees in Nangarhar Province to assist in their resettlement; a gypsum board manufacturing plant in Kabul to promote value-added local industry development and import substitution; a polyclinic in Mazar-e-Sharif among others. In addition, India also committed to take up additional 116 High Impact Community Development Projects in 34 provinces of Afghanistan. These projects will be in areas of education, health, agriculture, irrigation, drinking water, renewable energy, flood control, micro-hydropower, sports and administrative infrastructure. India also announced that ongoing assistance programmes for education, capacity building, skills and human resource development of Afghanistan, would continue for a further period of five years from 2017 to 2022. A signing ceremony of the Memorandum of Understanding [MoU] for the construction of the Lalandar [Shahtoot] Dam in Afghanistan took place virtually on 9 February 2021. This is the second major dam being built by India in Afghanistan, after the India- Afghanistan Friendship Dam [Salma Dam], which was inaugurated by the Prime Minister and the President in June 2016. As a part of our Development Cooperation with Afghanistan, India has completed more than 400 projects covering all 34 provinces of Afghanistan including the Parliament building-citadel of democracy.
In 2016 PM Modi visited Kabul twice in less than 4 months. The Prime Minister, in his remarks, highlighted the civilisational relationship between India and Afghanistan and gave an assurance of India’s continued support for a peaceful, united, stable, prosperous, and inclusive Afghanistan. India has invested heavily in peace and development in Afghanistan. We strongly believe that the gains of the last two decades must be preserved and the interests of minorities, women and vulnerable sections must be ensured.
From the US perspective, India-its comprehensive global strategic collaborator, which is currently a non-permanent member of the UNSC and heavily invested in Afghanistan, is a logical partner whose concerns must be taken on board. Zalmay Khalilzad again briefed Indian External Affairs Minister recently on their proposal. As Biden Administration is planning to take the UN route to the Afghan issue, India’s consistent preference for Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, broad-based, and inclusive process of peace and reconciliation by advocating the need for a sustained and long-term commitment to Afghanistan by the international community could pave the way for peace and transition in a proud but embattled neighbour of India.
(The author is Former Ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Libya and Malta. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @aniltrigunayat. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)