The Taliban, a violent extremist Islamist organisation bolstered by arms and money from the Pakistani establishment, has all of a sudden acquired a certain legitimacy. The United States, Russia and Iran are all talking to the Taliban leadership.
The proximate cause is Washington’s desire to finally pull out from Afghanistan where it has fought — and largely lost — an 18-year-old war. US President Donald Trump appears to be bold enough to do what his predecessors always wanted but didn’t dare to: walk away from the Afghan conflict.
Mr Trump doesn’t care a hoot what happens to Afghanistan and there’s no good reason why he should. Thousands of Americans were killed fighting in that country and even the modest US military presence there costs the US taxpayer billions of dollars.
Besides, it’s amply clear by now that the US military is incapable of winning the war against the Taliban. Nor can US money transform the country into a vibrant squeaky-clean Western-style democracy.
The Pakistani military establishment has won through their Islamist proxy, the Taliban. This is the reality: no amount of argument can change the fact.
The question is what should India do? Talk to the Taliban or stay away and hope for the best?
The only high-ranking Indian official candid enough to say something was Army Chief Gen. Bipin Rawat, who during a discussion at a conference said: “If other nations are keen on initiating talks with the Taliban, and this is what the host nation desires; then India shouldn’t be left out of the bandwagon, because of our positive engagements with Government in Afghanistan. This was also in line with from India attending the recent discussions in November 2018 in Russia; however no preconditions should be put forward by Taliban.”
The Army Chief also tweeted: “Many are engaging with Taliban for having peace. We should engage unconditionally to the extent of having a sense as to what is happening. India has contributed immensely for peace in Afghanistan and plans to do so.”
But New Delhi’s foreign policy establishment has largely remained silent on this subject, although there can be no denying a sense of urgency.
Significantly, both Iran and Russia want India to parley with the Taliban while the US, especially President Trump, is dismissive about India’s importance in the Afghan scheme of things.
President Trump recently complained that Prime Minister Narendra Modi kept talking about a “library” India had built in Afghanistan. Mr Modi “is constantly telling me, he built a library in Afghanistan. Library! That’s like five hours of what we spend (in Afghanistan)”, Mr Trump declared in an interview, adding: “I don’t know who is using it.”
Although President Trump may be unaware of it, fact is India has been extremely proactive in Afghanistan since 2002, pouring in over $2 billion in aid. Indian money has saved thousands of Afghan children and helped development in severely distressed areas.
The aim has been to build lasting ties with Afghan society and all ethnic groups. New Delhi appears to have believed that a strengthened Afghan economy and polity would keep out the Taliban.
India, it may be recalled, had effectively been kicked out of Afghanistan the moment the Taliban took over Kabul on September 26, 1996. The Indian diplomatic mission in Kabul barely had hours to pack up and leave. It was only after the Taliban’s retreat following the US-sponsored Northern Alliance offensive in late 2001 that India could return to Afghanistan.
Today, New Delhi faces the prospect of the Taliban’s return. The only good news is that most regional and global powers supporting the present Afghan government believe the Taliban will not be able to take over all of the country and will ultimately have to agree to a modus vivendi with the present Kabul government.
Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, during a recent visit to New Delhi, said: “We also believe the Taliban should not have a dominant role in Afghanistan... Nobody in the region believes a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan is in the security interests of the region. I believe that is almost a consensus.” The Russians, who are particularly worried about the activity of jihadis in northern Afghanistan, unabated heroin exports and the continued US presence in the region, also wish to deal with the Taliban. They believe a power-sharing deal would be in the best interests of all parties involved, including New Delhi, which is being kept in the loop.
Both Russia and Iran want India to open talks with the Taliban. The Iranians, who believe that a Taliban role in Afghanistan’s future is inevitable, have said they would be only too happy to facilitate talks between the Indian government and the Taliban.
Meanwhile, US special envoy on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, tasked by President Trump to work out an exit deal, has been dashing around the region, visiting Kabul and the capitals around it, to hammer out a deal. Mr Khalilzad has already had three rounds of talks with the Taliban in Doha, while the fourth round was cancelled by the Taliban due to the inclusion of Afghan government representatives in the talks.
The Taliban and Pakistan’s military establishment must be enjoying the moment. They are in the driving seat. President Trump’s decision to first halve the 14,000-strong American military contingent in Afghanistan and ultimately pull out completely suggests that Islamabad’s perseverance has paid off, leaving the US military and Nato exhausted.
While a US military withdrawal will delight Islamabad, most nations in the region, including Iran and Russia, fear for the long-term stability of Afghanistan.
The Taliban might agree to a power-sharing deal to get the Americans out but Pakistan’s military establishment, which seeks total domination over Afghanistan, or at least the eastern and southern parts of the country, is unlikely to relent. They will press for total domination. Their long-standing desire to achieve strategic depth in Afghanistan will also mean unremitting pressure on India to vacate that country.
Prudence suggests that India cannot go it alone in Afghanistan. The only sensible course of action would be to team up with Moscow, Tehran and even Beijing if need be to talk to the Taliban and work out a viable compromise, even if it means eating humble pie. That is the best New Delhi can really hope for.
The writer is an independent commentator on political and security issues...