Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India
Feb 07, 2019, 10.31 AM
After 17 years of war, Afghanistan is on the cusp of peace. The kind of peace Ronald Reagan spoke about — not the absence of conflict, but the ability to manage conflict by peaceful means. The Americans are pushing forth with a ceasefire agreement. The Russians are holding an intra-Afghan dialogue. Simultaneous attempts are underway. It’s the course that suits all sides.
All but two. The Government of Afghanistan and the Government of India. One has been left out of the peace talks, the second remains reluctant to join them.
Let’s begin with India. Some things have remained constant in the evolving matrix of Indian foreign policy. One is the assertion that talks and terror don’t go hand in hand. The second is India’s refusal to send troops to a foreign land without a United Nations mandate. Exceptions have been made, but Afghanistan may not qualify for that just yet. It’s an election year in India. Talking to the Taliban is just the kind of foreign policy hot potato any government would avoid, especially this one.
You could call it dithering. You could say India is weighing its options. You could also say that India is waiting to see how the chips fall. Delhi has tested the waters. In a major departure from policy, it sent two “unofficial representatives” to Moscow last year to “observe” the peace talks. But it’s not something the government wants to discuss. When the Army Chief in India said we should talk to the Taliban without preconditions, the government pretended the episode never took place. Radio silence. Some off-the-record reactions called it the Army Chief’s “personal opinion”.
The fact is that India is too deeply invested in Afghanistan, both in terms of money and diplomatic capital. India is Afghanistan’s biggest regional donor. Development assistance from New Delhi to Kabul stands at more than $2 billion. India started pouring in help right after the fall of the Taliban regime.
Over the years, India has built infrastructure — roads, dams, schools, hospitals, a cricket stadium and the country’s new Parliament (with a library now made famous by the American President). India is seen as a friendly nation with ties to all ethnic groups. India can leverage this, but not without recognising the party that rules Kabul. That could soon be the Taliban.
They’re now being treated as legitimate stakeholders. The Afghan politicians call them “one of us”. The outsiders are only too happy to accept, bury the hatchet and move on. Look at the peace talks and those brokering them.
The US wants to exit Afghanistan after having fought a long, frustrating and costly war. $45 billion every year, says President Donald Trump. He wants out and in his desperation trusts the Taliban to espouse peace and keep their word. The Pakistanis want these talks. They have nurtured the Taliban at the risk of upsetting the world and now want to seize their chance to play kingmakers in the strategically vital neighbourhood. The Russians are still coming to terms with their unceremonious exit a few decades ago, have revived their presence, and now want peace to safeguard their Central Asian assets.
And of course, the Taliban themselves. They control more than 60 per cent of Afghan territory. They want foreign forces to exit their land. They’re talking on their terms and have already secured the promise of America’s exit without giving anything in return. The Taliban strikes in Afghanistan haven’t abated with progress in the talks.
India has maintained that peace in Afghanistan should be an Afghan-led process. India is the only one still sticking to that position, apart from President Ghani who is out on a limb. He wants to be part of the peace talks but the Taliban won’t have him. They don’t recognise this government. They call it America’s puppet, not worth talking to. He wants the Americans to stay, he’s offering concessions, but Donald Trump would have none of it. The US President says his country is done with nation-building. Nobody is betting on the incumbent Afghan government.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have reached out to New Delhi. They’re offering dialogue, promising to safeguard India’s investments in Chabahar, even promising to protect minorities, including Hindus and Sikhs, in Afghanistan. They’re sounding like a political party. They seem to want to morph into one and seek legitimacy to rule a country they already pretty much control.
The choice before India is not really a choice. It’s a question of when rather than if. It’s a tough question in an election year. And the Modi government seems to be in no hurry to answer it.