Of late, there is some realization in India that it is time New Delhi dropped its reservations about engaging the radical Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan and participated in the on-going peace process in that devastated country.
Involved in the peace process are the Taliban, US, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. The process has the support of Beijing.
Each participating country has its own reasons to be in the peace process. The Taliban would like to capitalize on its ground level military superiority to negotiate a deal with the US which will put it in power in Kabul without further bloodshed. The US, tired of spending US$ 45 billion a year on the Afghan war, wants to withdraw with guarantees of non-aggression. Russia is interested in filling the vacuum created by US withdrawal, and reviving its historical role in Afghanistan. Iran and Pakistan need peace in the neighbourhood for the sake of economic development. China is keen that the Taliban is brought into the national and international mainstream so that it is tamed and China’s burgeoning investments in neighbouring Pakistan are safe. China is also a neighbour.
These countries have shed their past reservations and have set aside historical memories for the sake of peace now.
The US is ready to forget and forgive the Taliban, if only it would assure that Afghan soil will not be used to stage terror strikes. Strongly critical of Pakistan on the terrorism issue till recently, the US suddenly suspended criticism and sought Pakistan’s help to open up to the Taliban. The Russians forgot that they were ousted from Afghanistan not so long ago by the “Mujahideen”, who included the founders of Taliban. The erstwhile Northren Alliance groups which had fought the Taiban tooth and nail earlier, are now at the negotiating table with it.
Given the emerging scenario, it is argued that India too should forget the bitter past. The Taliban had attacked Indian establishments and abducted or killed Indian expatriates. The Taliban targeted India because India has been supporting the US-backed Kabul regime and had once heavily funded the Northern Alliance when the latter was fighting the Taliban in a brutal civil war.
Strategists argue that India needs to be in Afghanistan to block Pakistan from using the Taliban to oust India altogether from Afghanistan. Others point out that India’s economic stakes in that country are too high for it to be inactive.
With more than US$ 2 billion in Indian commitments, Afghanistan is the second-largest recipient of Indian aid after Bhutan. India built the Zaranj-Delaram highway to Iran. It constructed the Salma dam and the Pul-e-Khumri transmission line to light up Kabul. It is restored the telecommunication infrastructure in 11 provinces. About 116 small community development projects are being executed in the fields of agriculture, education, rural development, health, vocational training, and solar energy.
Efforts in the education and capacity development domain include the Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health; reconstruction of the Habibia School; provision of 500 annual scholarships; provision of 500 training scholarships to Afghan public servants; vocational support to Afghan women and youth; and capacity building in media and information, civil aviation, agricultural research and education, health care and medicinal science, tourism, education, standardization, rural development, public administration, electoral management and local government.
In 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an additional US$ 1 billion for capacity building in education, health, agriculture, skill development, women’s empowerment, energy, and infrastructure building.
It is widely recognized in Afghanistan that Indian development aid has benefitted ordinary Afghans. Bilateral trade is more or less balanced and is expected to touch US$ 2 billion by 2020.
The Taliban is poised to take over the country after the American military withdrawal which is expected to take place before the US Presidential election in November 2020. Therefore, it is felt that it is time India recognized and negotiated with the Taliban to protect its huge investments; maintain its strategic presence in the region; and checkmate troublesome Pakistan which already has good relations with the Taliban.
As on date, India is out of the peace process. This is because New Delhi is identified too closely with the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani, which the Taliban considers “illegitimate” and a “puppet” of the US. With the Taliban refusing to talk to the Ghani regime, the latter is not part of the on-going talks. And since the Ghani government is not there, India too is out. Like the Ghani regime, India insists that the legitimate, elected government of Afghanistan must be part of any peace process or settlement.
Supporters of the peace process maintain that the prospects for peace are bright going by the results of the February 5-6 conference in Moscow of all Afghan groups minus the Kabul regime. The Joint Statement issued at the end of the meet could be a sound basis for domestic peace and orderly international relations.
According to the Joint Statement, all parties had agreed that: cooperation of regional countries and major countries is essential to determine a lasting and nationwide peace in Afghanistan; that values such as respect for the principles of Islam are instituted in all parts of the system; that the principle that Afghanistan is a common home to all Afghans is recognized; that there should be support to a powerful centralized government with all Afghan ethnicities having a role in it; that national sovereignty and promotion of social justice are ensured; that it is essential to keep Afghanistan neutral in all regional and international conflicts and that Afghanistan’s national and religious values are protected.
The statement sought the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country, and asked all countries to avoid interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. In return, Afghanistan assured to the international community that Afghanistan will not be used against any other nation, that social, economic, political and educational rights of Afghan women in line with Islamic principles will be fostered along with the political and social rights of the entire people of Afghanistan, including freedom of speech in line with Islamic principles. The statement also assured that Afghanistan will accept international assistance for its reconstruction.
Recent research has established that the Taliban is keen on running a government well. It is running the administration in areas under its control in a systematic and responsible way.
However, the road to peace may not be smooth given the opposition President Donald Trump faces from American hardliners and the US military-industrial complex which want the war to continue. But regardless of the opposition, Trump is set to make a deal with the Taliban.
All that the US has been wanting is an agreement from Taliban to talk to the Afghan government and coopt it in any future political set up. But if the Taliban guarantees US security credibly, Washington may drop Kabul like a hot potato. The US had shed its reservations about Russia and Pakistan and has allowed their participation.
As for India, it has genuine fears about the return of the Taliban to power. Given its strong commitment to Jihad and also given its alliance with Pakistan, the Taliban could promote terrorism in Kashmir despite assurances to the contrary. Given India’s standoffish attitude to it, the Taliban could threaten Indian establishments and personnel in Afghanistan.
India has been completely dependent on the US military presence for its protection in Afghanistan. In this context, US withdrawal would be the last thing India would want.
However, New Delhi has been seeking an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled” peace process and settlement. What emerges finally may not answer to New Delhi’s description of an ideal Afghan settlement. It will reflect the ground realities. It is time New Delhi realized that the ground realities can be shaped to meet its needs only if it actively participates in the on-going peace process.