As the timeline for withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, envisaged in the peace agreement hammered out with Taliban by the US emissary Zalmay Khalizad last year, draws close the situation in Afghanistan seems to be exactly where it was when the accord was signed.
Talks in Doha to ensure follow-up on the pact seemed to have run into a stalemate as the Taliban refused to give up violence in the run-up to intra-Afghan negotiations for the future set-up of the country. Zalmay’s handling of his task had many abnormalities — some of them flowing from his own tinted view of the Afghan situation. He placated the Taliban beyond a point, influenced by Pakistan’s overestimated role as a facilitator in the eyes of the Americans, and decided to hold talks totally at the back of the lawful government of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani — again because he was personally indifferent to that set-up. He prematurely put a seal on the agreement without making due diligence on the intentions of the Taliban about leveraging violence for having its way in the intra-Afghan parleys. Moreover, in what must be considered a flawed assessment, the US representative worked on a theoretical construct that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were entirely different organisations and that Taliban would be willing to sacrifice its bonds with the Al-Qaeda for the sake of coming into power in Afghanistan. The only country that stands to gain from the Afghan conundrum is Pakistan and this should be a matter of concern for India.
The peace agreement signed at Doha on February 29, 2020 called for the withdrawal of all American and NATO troops from Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban upheld the terms of agreement. The Taliban was asked to stop supporting Al-Qaeda, cease violence and hold negotiations with the Afghan government about the future rule in the country. However, after the agreement, the Taliban predictably continued its attacks on Afghan security forces and kept up its pressure tactics to secure the release of some 5,000 Taliban detainees from the Afghan prisons by a reluctant Ashraf Ghani who was rightly peeved over his exclusion from the talks. True to its character, the Taliban is determined to see the Afghan Emirate of 1996 restored, a regime that was installed at Kabul by Pakistan with recognition coming in only from two fundamentalist Arab states of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates at that time.
The geopolitical importance of Afghanistan for US, Russia and China derives from the legacy of the Cold War, the memory of the anti-Soviet armed campaign in Afghanistan that was run on the war cry of Jehad with Pak-sponsored Hizbul Mujahideen, the radical Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda equally in the lead and the CPEC now built by China in alliance with Pakistan on the territory of POK adjoining Afghanistan that made the entire Pak-Afghan belt an area of vital strategic significance for President Xi Jinping. The US, regardless of who ran the Presidency, seems to still place its bets on Pakistan as a ‘friend’ that would help to safeguard American interests in Afghanistan while Russia on its part, chastened by the recall of the cataclysmic ouster of Soviet army from Afghanistan, would like to have an oversight on the way Afghanistan was being governed.
In regard to the Taliban, Russia must have taken notice of the known anti-US character of radical Islam. This is the backdrop in which Moscow’s hosting of another ‘troika’ meet — of US, Russia and China — for Afghanistan on March 18 to kickstart the Afghan peace process, can be seen. The talks at Doha have stalled with Washington and Kabul pressing for a ceasefire and Taliban clearly using militancy as an instrument for achieving their political objective of gaining supremacy in the country’s future governance. The Moscow conference was attended by US peace envoy Zalmay Khalizad, Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council, and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Pakistan was invited for ‘its influence on both sides’ and India was like before excluded even though Russia acknowledged the importance of India’s role for the future. Significantly, Qatar and Turkey had been approached as special invitees as Russia finds them useful. The Russian Foreign Minister emphasised that it was important to sign an agreement serving the interests of all key ethnic and political forces of the country — an inclusive democratic government favoured by him, however, may not be in sync with the demand for an Islamic Emirate voiced by Taliban. Pakistan would be comfortable with a Taliban dominated dispensation in Afghanistan and it has to be seen how it manipulates things there to get US and Russia to accept the replacement of the Ashraf Ghani government with a Taliban-anchored rule.
Although the Biden administration is in two minds about pulling out the American troops from Afghanistan in line with the Doha peace agreement, because of the recalcitrance of the Taliban on the issue of Emirate, there is a huge risk from the Indian point of view, of a halfway-house being accepted by the former on the basis of an excessive reliance on Pakistan as a mediator. Pakistan seems to be making an effort to be on the right side of the new US President. The Sino-Pak military alliance that does not bother US and Russia so much, is the new factor on the Afghan front that is troublesome for India. There is a give-and-take between these two ‘all- weather friends’ with China welcoming a hold for Pakistan in Afghanistan’s future dispensation and Pakistan ignoring the serious allegations of China’s mistreatment of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang and elsewhere. China, expectedly, is hand-in-glove with Pakistan on the Afghan issue as the Pak-Afghan-Kashmir region has to be kept free of a risk to the high investment project of CPEC that was strategically so important for it. India’s close alignment with the Ashraf Ghani government in matters of extending civilian aid to Afghanistan and working for a non-radical and inclusive dispensation in that country, counters the Sino-Pak machinations in Afghanistan. India has to continue seeking convergence with the US, Russia and Iran on its Afghan policy.
As is the case with many security-related issues of South Asia, return of peace in Afghanistan directly matters for the long-range strategic interest of India for it embraces the threats of radicalisation and terrorism, impacts the safety of India’s borders and determines the strength of the Sino-Pak axis against India. The myopic approach of US policy makers — of making a distinction between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in terms of their potential for militancy — indicates how wishful thinking could get into assessments and provide false comfort. In the Afghan Jehad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Al-Qaeda and Taliban unitedly led the campaign as they represented the Arab and Asian radicals who were driven by the historical legacy of the ‘Wahhabi revolt’ of the Nineteenth century that was launched against the Western occupation of Muslim lands. The Afghan Emirate propped up by Pakistan in 1996 was led by Mullah Omar, the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden and it had lost no time in baring its fangs against the US-led West, the Shias and the ‘Idol worshippers’, in that order. The turf of 9/11 was, in a way, laid in Afghanistan. If the Taliban regains its sway in the future governance there, it will cause a problem for the entire democratic world. Peace and democracy have to go together — moreso in Afghanistan.
India seems to be pursuing a three-pronged strategy on Afghanistan. Calling for an ‘Afghan-led and Afghan owned’ peace process, it has developed a deepening friendship with Ashraf Ghani’s regime to press for a democratic rule in Afghanistan. The meeting of the Afghan President with Prime Minister Modi at Delhi in 2018 emphasised the importance of strategic partnership between the two countries. Abdullah Abdullah, representing Afghanistan at the peace talks, visited India in October last year and significantly quoted Ajit Doval, NSA, as having assured him of India’s full support for a ‘sovereign democratic Afghanistan where no terrorist will be able to operate’. More recently, Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar had extensive discussions with Dr Jaishankar at Delhi on bilateral relations and the need for building international consensus on the Afghanistan peace process.
Secondly, India is expressing full commitment to aiding development in Afghanistan and assisting its security forces including the police in training and capacity building. Finally, India is showing the political will to bring round both US and Russia to accept a regionally backed outcome of the peace process in which India played an important part. It is hoped that President Biden would remember his Democrat predecessor Obama’s recommendation for ‘geopolitical pluralism’ in Afghanistan and not accept a Taliban-dominant set-up there for the future at any cost. India has to win its battle against Pakistan in Afghanistan for its own security.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)