Shortly after the February 29 US-Taliban agreement was signed in Doha (Qatar), aimed at ending 18 years of American occupation and returning peace to Afghanistan after 40 years of fighting that had commenced with troops of the former Soviet Union entering the country in December 1979, President Donald Trump made an extraordinary observation in Washington.
The US leader said, “If bad things happen, we will return to Afghanistan.” This cannot be viewed with any seriousness, and the Taliban know it. In the past eight years, America has made no secret of its keenness to exit the Afghan quagmire and last week’s agreement has come after more than a year of gruelling negotiation with the Taliban, facilitated by Pakistan. It was also President Trump’s manifesto to end America’s foreign wars, and Afghanistan has been the longest running of them all — a military stalemate that has cost $2 trillion and thousands of lives on all sides.
Not to put too fine a point on it, imperium has been forced to retreat. The Taliban have messaged their boys: “American empire has been defeated”. This is an important reason why India must plan to play its second innings in Afghanistan with acumen, this time not aided by the weather.
Favourable conditions had prevailed in India’s first outing on account of the US presence. Increasingly, in the past two decades, India — unlike other independent-minded key neighbours of Afghanistan like Russia, Iran and China, or cynically behaved Pakistan — has sailed closer and closer to the American wind.
This has not gone unnoticed in Kabul, and has chagrined many, including some of New Delhi’s best friends as the Taliban spread their influence through battlefield successes. The distinctly beneficial effects of the protracted (but progressively stale) US presence slowly began to be discredited and discounted at the street level. The politicians could hardly remain unaffected.
India’s strong connect with the broad contours of US policy in Afghanistan — although tactically, when needed, India did back Russian, Iranian and sometimes even Chinese positions — can disadvantage New Delhi once America is seen to be less of a factor after the February 29 agreement. Neverthe-less, and this may seem paradoxical, there could still exist leeway for India’s close ties with the US to be leveraged with the various Afghan parties, including the Taliban, provided US economic aid and political support does not cease or drastically diminish after the US troops’ eventual withdrawal.
A further proviso is that the Taliban themselves change and show an inclination to accept the vastly changed landscape of their country, where a veritable transformation has occurred in the socio-political sphere (thanks to America’s presence) since the militants were ousted from power in 2001, although monumental challenges remain.
The Taliban’s acceptance of India may greatly depend on this happening. It cannot be overlooked that India is still valued by common Afghans for its extensive developmental work in all provinces of Afghanistan and for its democracy (no other neighbour of Afghanistan is a democracy), although questions have lately been raised about some of New Delhi’s recent domestic policy actions and orientation.
While in the past two decades this country has developed an enviable equation with all sections of society and politics in Afghanistan, with the Taliban it has no equity. It can develop some if the Taliban are persuaded that India stands with the Afghan people through thick and thin and India will stand by a genuinely sovereign Afghanistan. This of course cannot materialise if the Taliban do not modify their understanding of Pakistan, whose principal aim is to plot India’s ouster from Kabul.
For the most part, the Taliban has been viewed in India as a dangerous terrorist group which is in cahoots with Pakistan. In policy circles, however, some concern has been expressed that this is too formulaic a stance. After all, in its domestic sphere, India has considerable expertise in negotiating with nearly every ideological variety of rebel. This lesson could have been put to use in dealing with Afghanistan’s insurgents too, but the opportunity was not explored. It may now be time to do so with energy and imagination if India does not wish to find itself stranded in Kabul after the diminution of US power.
Under the US-Taliban accord, some 5,000 Taliban prisoners are to be released by the Americans shortly, and an intra-Afghan dialogue is to commence in Norway. The Taliban may be expected to have the upper hand in these talks with the other political groups (including the government in Kabul, whose representatives may only be entertained in their personal capacity and not as official representatives).
It is entirely conceivable that several of the groups that have enjoyed power in Afghanistan in recent years, and have opposed the Taliban, may seek to do separate deals with the them, knowing the group’s military capabilities, in order to remain in the game as an interim government — a distinct probability — is sought to be formed in Kabul, wholly delegitimising the recent controversial election which revalidated President Ashraf Ghani.
For the Americans, this will be par for the course, although they had supported the election. Their only concern is that anti-US international jihadist outfits should not again be permitted to gain a foothold in Afghanistan by the Taliban. This seems, really speaking, more a face-saving device to press for in negotiations rather than a demand in substance since such outfits have practically ceased to exist.
With all concerned (including Russia, China and Iran) viewing the Afghan prism with new eyes and welcoming recent events as a possible harbinger of peace, India can also be realistic. Since 2001, it has, on a point of principle, backed the government of the day in Kabul, eschewing value judgments. Even with the Taliban emerging as lead players, this point remains effective since the Taliban, in a changed Afghanistan, may be expected to shed some of their rigidities. Continued US aid to Afghanistan and India keeping firm with its developmental agenda even under the Taliban can help moderate the former insurgents.