America’s diplomatic clock on Afghanistan seems to be turning a full circle. Nearly two decades after the United States stitched up a multi-nation coalition to throw out the Taliban in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, the Donald Trump administration is making frantic efforts to bring the terrorist outfit to the negotiating table. His aim: to put up a framework for peace in the war-ravaged country that would enable him to pull out US troops.
But there is widespread fear that the US is conceding too much space to the Taliban, so that they are in a commanding position to shape Afghanistan’s future. The urgency on Washington’s part stems from Trump’s electoral promise of bringing US troops home by ending America’s longest war—a boost to his leadership credentials before he prepares to seek a second term in 2020.
Interestingly, the American move has been endorsed by China and Russia. But what is worrying India and others most is the effort the three countries made to bring Pakistan firmly back in the Afghan game.
So far, Pakistan was held responsible for much of the instability and violence in Afghanistan; as a result, it was relegated to the margins. But thanks to America’s eagerness to withdraw and Pakistan’s ability to deliver the Taliban to the talks-table, it appears to be back as a key arbiter on Afghan affairs. The US, China and Russia jointly welcomed Pakistan to a recent four-party consultation process that seeks to end the protracted war, with the Taliban in a menacing ascendancy.
“China, Russia and the US welcomes Pakistan joining the consultation and believe Pakistan can play an important role in facilitating peace in Afghanistan,” a US statement said. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is due to travel to Washington soon to hold talks with Trump on Afghanistan’s future and ways to strengthen US-Pakistan ties.
But many are questioning the unseemly haste in trying to patch up a deal with the Taliban, to ensure that the US forces do not withdraw from Afghanistan with a bloodied nose.
“The US’s attempt to make a pact with the Taliban will be counter-productive,” warns Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India’s former ambassador to Kabul. He also feels that Washington has been “hopelessly short-sighted” to overlook the salutary role played by the duly-elected Afghan government towards the nation’s development.
Similar views are expressed by other observers. “The process, as it is unfolding, is deeply flawed,” says strategic writer Srinath Raghavan. “If Afghan officials are attending inter-Afghan talks in their ‘personal capacity’, it signals a total capitulation to the Taliban,” he adds. Raghavan points out that the costly gains made after 2011, especially the constitution and a democratic process, are now on the chopping block. He says US policy is best understood as a ‘decent interval’ approach, so long as there is some time after the US withdrawal, with a gradual worsening of the situation in Afghanistan. “It saves America’s face.”
Russia and China, adds Raghavan, have their own interests in securing an early American exit and getting Pakistan to help ‘stabilise’ the post- withdrawal situation in Afghanistan. “This will put Pakistan in the driver’s seat. The history of Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan should clearly remind us on what is likely to come,” Raghavan cautions.
The US and Pakistan had joined hands with some Gulf countries to create the Taliban from among the Pashtun Afghan students who grew up in the refugee camps in the Af-Pak border area, and who were indoctrinated in madrasas by fundamentalist Islamic preachers in the mid-’90s.
The Taliban’s presence in Afghanistan had turned the country stiflingly conservative and India was a neighbour adversely affected by a regime in Kabul that was tutored by Pakistan.
With the Taliban and Pakistan now back in the Afghan game with US support, Indian concerns on the evolving situation in Afghanistan seem quite well-founded.
The US’s bottom-line in Afghanistan seems to ensure that in future no terrorist attacks should target American interests from Afghan soil. It is also conveying to the Taliban and others that even after its withdrawal it continues to keep an intelligence presence in the country to monitor the developments. This could well be the core of its negotiations with the Taliban—the long-awaited withdrawal of American troops and assets might begin once this is assured.
Vivek Katju, former secretary in the MEA, who also served as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, describes the American negotiating position as “absurd”, even as he feels that India should have engaged with the Taliban, like other countries, to ensure it is not out of the loop in the Afghan developments. “The whole world is talking to the Taliban. What do we gain by ignoring them?” he asks. He too admits that the Americans were conceding too much to the Taliban. For instance, at the recent ‘intra-Afghan’ meeting in Doha, the Taliban were the only ones which came as a ‘group’, while all others, including key officials of the Afghan government, attended the meeting in their personal capacity. “It looks more like the terms of a surrender being negotiated by the US,” says Katju.
Many others also share the view that India should have engaged with the Taliban. But as Mukhopadhaya points out, while the Taliban is a player in Afghanistan, it cannot be allowed to call the shots on the future shape of the country. He also feels that the Taliban’s role in Afghanistan has been more hyped than is demanded by reality. Despite being criticised, he points out, the Afghan National Army had not conceded any important provincial capital to the Taliban, which has managed to control only 30 per cent of Afghanistan after its incessant campaigns of ultra-violence. the Taliban, he stresses, is also much hated and most non-Pashtun Afghans are suspicious of it since it is backed by Pakistan.
Mukhopadhaya expresses the hope that democracy and a comparatively open society have struck deep roots amongst Afghans in the past 18 years. Therefore, even if the Taliban tries to laterally intrude into the political centrestage by ignoring the constitution and the election process, it will be strongly resisted. He also feels that India, which continues to be very popular among different sections of Afghans, should support the elected government and the constitution that, despite heavy odds, have managed to bring significant changes.
Katju concurs with Mukhopadhaya about India’s enduring popularity in Afghanistan. But he feels that the ground reality is such that there is very little New Delhi could do to alter the current course.
Raghavan, too, is for a more proactive role for India, like convening a meeting of the Afghan groups. “But it may be too late to make any serious headway,” he admits.
No one expects the US’s protracted endgame in Afghanistan to be smooth. Some fear another long spell of violence and instability after the Americans withdraw. But, as Katju observes, there is also a positive note to it: “Irrespective of how marginalised India may look now, no new regime in Kabul can afford to ignore it. It will have to engage with New Delhi for stability and development.”
Whether that optimism has any basis in reality will be proven by the latest contours of Afghanistan’s tortuous path to normality.