The rapid progress in direct peace negotiations between the US and the Taliban in Qatar is a moment of truth for India. With a deal to conclude the 17-year-long US war in Afghanistan on the anvil, India risks losing the influence it has built up in a geopolitically crucial country through decades of sustained developmental and security assistance.
The delicately poised situation demands a recalibration of strategy to preserve Indian interests in Afghanistan, which are two-fold. First, New Delhi wants to prevent the return of a jihadist ‘emirate’ under the Taliban (which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001), which again can become a staging ground for anti-India terrorist activities.
The second goal is to forestall a Pakistan-dominated Afghanistan, which thwarts India’s leadership of South Asia and access to Central Asia.
Both these interests are currently vulnerable because the future make-up of the Afghan State, and its foreign policy orientation, look quite dicey.
The isolationist Donald Trump administration is in a ‘cut and run’ mode, and is seeking a face-saving pact with the Taliban to justify the full withdrawal of 1,400-odd US troops. Much to India’s chagrin, Washington has pursued talks in Qatar behind a screen of total secrecy and relied on Pakistan to strike an accord with the Taliban. The Afghan government in Kabul, India’s main ally, has been relegated in this shadow dance, rendering New Delhi’s insistence on an ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’ peace process wishful.
Since the war-weary and domestically preoccupied Trump is in a weak corner, the deal he is pushing will be to the Taliban’s advantage and the Afghan State’s disadvantage. US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the Department of State, Zalmay Khalilzad, has denied hammering out details of a post-war interim Afghan government that includes Taliban leaders. However, the fact is that power sharing is undoubtedly going to be the basis on which the Taliban would halt their insurgency.
So, the emerging Afghanistan will inevitably be a hybrid one, with official co-sharing by both moderate Afghan politicians and Taliban hardliners. Extreme factionalism and lack of unity among moderate Afghan leaders have been the Achilles’ heel of the State so far. If the Taliban enter government, or get autonomous dominion over regions of the country where they already have de facto control, it will become an even more fragmented and divided State. Pakistan would then have greater sway over parts of the Afghan State apparatus, and will not hesitate to use its proxies there to develop its military ‘strategic depth’ against India.
The only way to mitigate this scenario is for India to enter a broad-ranging coalition of regional States to bolster moderate elements in the post-war Afghanistan framework. The recent first-ever India-Central Asia Dialogue in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is a smart initiative of the Indian government to huddle with neighbouring countries that dread a jihadist resurgence in Afghanistan after US troops depart.
As secular Muslim-majority nations close to ethnic minority communities inside Afghanistan, the Central Asians must be seconded by India to monitor and enforce ceasefires, and deploy boots on the ground if the Taliban violate the terms of the peace deal
As China enjoys a financial and strategic choke hold over Pakistan, New Delhi must also strive for an accommodation with Beijing to restrain Islamabad’s promotion of anti-India jihadist proxies like the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan. If China demands a loosening of India’s military partnership with the US in return for Beijing constraining Islamabad in Kabul, New Delhi should be open to such grand bargains.
Recent signals from Iran that it can use its influence on certain Taliban units to help India is another opportunity that New Delhi must grab. Given that Iran and India have enormous stakes in the Chabahar port and its connected Zaranj-Delaram highway, New Delhi must seek Tehran’s facilitation to blunt the anti-India edge in sections of the Taliban. The same should be pursued with Russia, which has some Taliban constituencies of its own, and can offer its good offices.
Portions of the Taliban seethe at being dictated to by Pakistani intelligence agencies. Appealing to the Taliban’s Afghan nationalism, and proposing a ‘no-hostility’ agreement to independent minded Taliban segments, will do no harm to New Delhi’s long-term interests.
Thanks to Trump’s retreat, Afghanistan has been thrown into an epic scrum. India cannot afford to postpone hard decisions or remain a passive bystander. Proactively bolstering pro-India moderate forces inside the nascent hybrid Afghan State, and ‘softening’ the Taliban by constructing a regional phalanx of countries are essential measures to avert our worst nightmares.
The writer is Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonipat, Haryana