Delhi must show realism on Taliban reconciliation and peace talks

(A procession escorting the body of Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman arrives to a funeral home in the Bronx borough of New York, April 22, 2019.)

The trilateral meeting of the United States, Russia and China at the level of special representatives in Moscow on April 25 signifies that the Afghan peace talks will be shifting gear to a more concerted and intense phase with focus on a practical approach. 

The troika of big powers can be expected to coordinate efforts not only from the perspective of galvanising an intra-Afghan dialogue process but also to harmonise the interests of regional states such as India as well as Afghanistan’s neighbours such as Pakistan and Iran. The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad is due to visit New Delhi, Islamabad and London after the consultations in Moscow. 

This is a positive development, especially the willingness in Washington to coordinate efforts with Moscow. Curiously, there is a nascent trend in Russian-American relations lately with the two countries consulting each other regularly on a range of regional issues — Venezuela, Sudan, North Korea, etc. Ironically, in Libya, the two big powers find themselves on the same page in recognising that the warlord Khalifa Haftar can be a factor of stability for the country if shepherded appropriately. (It is now known that US President Donald Trump telephoned Haftar recently, while it is an open secret that the Libyan strongman has been a frequent flyer to Moscow.) 

With regard to Afghanistan too, if the peace talks and the reconciliation process can be sequestered from the US-Russia tensions, that will do a world of good. The emergence of the troika of big powers will have a salutary effect on any country that may otherwise decide to act as ‘spoiler’ in Afghanistan. Quite obviously, the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani won a temporary reprieve recently by scuttling the intra-afghan dialogue that was originally slated for this month in Doha. 

Possibly, Ghani and the hardliners in his circle felt emboldened by the encouragement from behind the scenes by some regional states. At any rate, timely US intervention has salvaged the initiative to hold the deferred intra-Afghan dialogue sometime in May in Doha. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo personally conveyed to Ghani that Washington expects the Doha talks to succeed. Period. That message has gone home. In this context, Khalilzad’s inclusion of Delhi in his current regional tour is also very timely. Presumably, he will be carrying the same message to the Indians that Pompeo gave to Ghani. 

Delhi has been advocating that the priority in Afghanistan at the moment is to hold pending elections and instal a new government, and that the peace talks should evolve upon accommodating the Taliban with some crumbs of power under the government — more or less similar to the deal in September 2016 to defang Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. This is also what Ghani and the hardliners in his circle have been seeking. 

However, there are no takers for such a hardline approach toward the Taliban in the international community, which is inclined to see the insurgents as a legitimate player in Afghanistan with indigenous roots and exercising extensive control over half the country at least, who, therefore, have to be reconciled and brought into mainstream politics in a spirit of give and take.

A consensus opinion is now available in the international community, which is also shared by large sections of Afghan (non-governmental) opinion including such influential national figures such as former President Hamid Karzai that peace is the number one priority and the presidential election can take place later. Karzai who is on a visit to Moscow, said in an interview to the Turkish media earlier today, “First peace. The priority for us now is peace in Afghanistan. Once we have peace and stability then we can conduct our elections more properly.” 

Karzai has welcomed in particular the troika meeting in Moscow tomorrow, saying his wish is “to see them succeed.” To quote Karzai, “I hope for improvements as we are seeing the start of some form of cooperation between the US and Russia on the peace process on Afghanistan, and also we are seeing the Chinese involvement in this. There will be meeting tomorrow in Moscow between the representatives of the US, Russia and China. That’s a very good sign.” 

Karzai spoke strongly about the futility of seeking a military solution in Afghanistan. “For too long my country suffered from war and conflict. For too long it does not have an equal seat that was to decide its fate. It is very clear by now that the resolution of the conflict in my country can not come from the violence. The idea of a military solution is now more containable than ever before,” he said. 

Karzai praised “Russia’s good will” in getting different factions of Afghans to the negotiating table as “exemplary”. He said further efforts must be based on and encourage intra-Afghan dialogue. It should also be transparent and supported by the regional players. Of course, it stands to reason that Karzai has had detailed discussions in Moscow with the Russian officials before voicing these opinions publicly. 

Therefore, hopefully, something of these tidings will at least rub on the strategists in Delhi when they sit across the table with Khalilzad. One particularly significant idea that Karzai has floated — with which, presumably, Russians are in concurrence — is the creation of a new security mechanism for cooperation between major international and regional actors so that Afghanistan would be “a point of cooperation and not of confrontation.” 

Now, in a signifiant ruling last week, the Afghan Supreme Court has extended Ghani’s presidential term up until the presidential election whenever it is going to take place. This points toward a consensus that an agreement on the withdrawal of foreign troops and attendant counterterrorism assurances must come first, followed by the intra-Afghan dialogue (in which Afghan government is also expected to participate) with a view to chart out a future road map for the country. The strong likelihood is that a Loyal Jirga will become necessary at that point. Clearly, under the circumstances, holding the presidential election first will be tantamount to putting the cart before the horse.