The Biden administration's plans to kick-start the Afghan peace process and carry on from where Donald Trump left off has brought India into the picture. India will now be part of the regional forum on Afghanistan when the UN convenes the meeting. The US had long talked of roping in regional powers to play a role, considering that an Afghanistan wracked by civil war has had a negative fall-out in the neighbourhood. Instability does not just help terror groups like ISIS to thrive but impacts the overall economic prospects. Neighbours like Pakistan, Russia, China, India, and Iran all have stakes at helping the peace process. It is another matter that all these countries have their own special interests at heart and may spend time cutting each other down. Nevertheless, it is a start at co-operation.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has set the Afghan peace plans rolling, had said in a letter to President Ashraf Ghani (leaked by the local Tolo News) that Washington wants regional players to discuss a “unified” plan for peace in the wa-ravaged nation. “It is my belief that these countries share an abiding common interest in a stable Afghanistan and must work together if we are to succeed.” The US will ask the UN to convene a meeting of the regional group as talks gain momentum. Blinken’s letter sets up a framework for international diplomacy as the new US administration much like the previous Donald Trump and Barak Obama governments is keen to get US forces out of Afghanistan. However, unlike Trump, President Biden wants to ensure that Afghanistan does not sink into chaos once the US troops leave. This is why Blinken while working to a plan has deliberately kept the date for full withdrawal of the US forces open-ended. The US-Taliban peace agreement hammered out after months of negotiations in February 2020, had agreed on May 1 as the deadline. By not committing to a deadline, the Americans hope to have more room to manoeuvre. The US is racing against time to re-energize the peace process with the aim of the eventual withdrawal of the troops from the country.
For India being part of the talks on Afghanistan, where it has invested so much time and money is an opportunity to ensure that its interests are not thrown out of the window. Considering Pakistan and China are also part of the group. “India must be at the table on any discussion on the future of Afghanistan, because of its strategic interest in ensuring regional stability. Instability in Afghanistan undoubtedly has repercussions on India,’’ says Nandan Unnikrishnan of the Observer Research Foundation.
But the regional forum is only one part of the peace plans. Much more important will be the intra-Afghan talks where the actual power-sharing negotiations will take place. The next round of intra-Afghan talks which will discuss the sensitive issue of power-sharing will shift from Doha to Turkey. “We will ask the government of Turkey to host a senior-level meeting of both sides in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement. I (Blinken) urge you (Ghani) or your authoritative designates to join other representatives of the Islamic Republic [of Afghanistan] in this meeting,” Tolo News shared from the leaked letter. Blinken had spoken of an interim government to oversee the implementation of the peace deal if it is agreed on. The Ghani loyalists may be up against a wall. The Taliban naturally want a large share of the political pie in the interim government which will be in place until the country is ready to hold both presidential and parliamentary elections. President Asharaf Ghani is unwilling to share power with the Taliban in an interim arrangement.
Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s envoy for peace negotiations was retained by the new administration. Khalilzad met with the Taliban in Doha the Qatari capital last week, to get things moving. He assured the Taliban that the peace deal signed between the US and the Taliban during the Trump term will remain in place. There will be some modifications but the broad contours are intact, including an interim power-sharing arrangement. President Ghani however claims that transfer of power can be only through elections and as he has not completed his full second term, he is not ready to step down. Others point to large-scale allegations of irregularities in the last presidential polls. Many senior Afghan leaders are distancing themselves from Ghani on this. His rival and chief executive Abdullah-Abdullah leads the government negotiations with the Taliban. Ghani’s support may be waning and there is a chance the President may himself in the dustbin of history if he continues to remain adamant. and months.
India has steadfastly stood by the elected government of Afghanistan, earlier backing Hamid Karzai and now Ashraf Ghani. That may have now proved to be counter-productive. Delhi has consistently refused to have any dealings with the Taliban and unlike other countries, had not adapted to the changed circumstances. India’s Afghan friends like Hamid Karzai have long asked Delhi to engage with the Taliban. Though India attended a Moscow meeting in 2018, which the Taliban and Afghan political and tribal leaders attended, Delhi sent in two retired IFS officers, Amar Sinha and T.C.A.Raghavan. This was a good opportunity to begin preliminary engagement with the Taliban. But they were probably under strict instructions not to do so. India insisted the “nonofficial representation’’ was there mainly because the invite came from Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. It was a wasted opportunity. It is now for India to be realistic and engage the Taliban.
The next round of crucial Taliban - Afghan government talks will be held not in Doha but in Turkey. The US is backing the move for a ceasefire to ensure that the Taliban does not start its summer offensive. A ceasefire and the interim arrangement will have to be worked out by the two sides. Much will depend on how these negotiations pan out. The meeting of an “extended troika’’ is slated for March 18 in Moscow. Invitations have gone out to China, the US, and Pakistan from the Russians. The Taliban and Afghan government and political figures are also expected to attend. Whether all this activity finally results in a political settlement is uncertain. But a last-ditch effort is on.
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