Delhi shouldn’t panic that Afghan war is ending

(Talibs as diplomats beckoning to peace.)

Panic has seized the Indian analysts – mixed with fury and frustration – that the Americans are marching out of Afghanistan. Yet, the fact of the matter is that no such decision has been announced yet by President Trump, who actually has nothing to lose and everything to gain politically by taking credit for any such formal decision, which would be a hugely popular one in the domestic opinion. After all, it will be a double whammy for Trump after Syria to ‘bring the boys home’ from another futile war, which also happens to be the longest war America ever fought in its history. Candidate Trump had repeatedly, emphatically had promised that he’d terminate America’s imperial overstretch.

The Indian analysts do not get the point that the media “leak” of a likely partial American withdrawal from Afghanistan has not been owned by any US official and so far Trump doesn’t seem interested to butt into the issue, either. So, what purpose is this media leak serving?

Maybe, US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who is due to attend a Track 1.5 in Delhi in the first week of January can educate the Indians and take them into confidence that the media leak has been intended as a ‘confidence-building measure’ (albeit with plausible deniability) for meeting Taliban’s pre-condition partially that they would enter into intra-Afghan talks only on the basis of a certainty of the US withdrawal of troops. Equally, the CBM would hopefully nudge the Taliban to agreeing to a ceasefire for a 3-month period, as mooted by Saudi Arabia and the UAE at the talks in Abu Dhabi recently. Which was of course why the “leak” took place coinciding with the talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban representatives in Abu Dhabi recently. (See my Asia Times piece Trump’s Afghan withdrawal could pave the way for peace.)

Significantly, from all accounts, the talks between the visiting Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and the Afghan leadership on Monday in Kabul were “productive” (as acknowledged by both sides) and fleshed out the tantalizing idea of ‘Afghan-owned, Afghan-controlled’ peace talks. This is a significant step forward, because the (non-Taliban) Afghans are increasingly restive that they are not involved in the peace parleys so far. The Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s induction of two old war horses with lineage traceable to the Northern Alliance era – Asadullah Khaled and Amrullah Saleh as the defence and interior ministers respectively – can be seen in this light. The intra-Afghan peace talks, when it commences, will gain traction only if it involves such incorrigibly hardline folks as Khaled and Saleh who will be seeking a role for themselves in any settlement.

Both Khaled and Saleh have impeccable credentials for being “anti-Taliban” and “anti-Pakistan” and are known to be ardent votaries of the war who passionately believe (for reasons best known to them) – at least in words – that the Taliban can still be defeated on the battlefield and peace can be imposed on the defeated insurgents. Nonetheless, it must come an eye-opener to the Indian analysts (and the Indian security establishment) that the surge of Khaled and Saleh has not exactly sent the Pakistanis (or the Taliban) into a tizzy. Certainly, Qureshi behaved quite normally in Kabul and transacted useful business, although the appointment of Khaled and Saleh was announced just on the eve of his arrival for the crucial talks. Simply put, the Indians do have a problem in digesting that Pakistan (and Khalilzad) may be quietly pleased that the toughest anti-Taliban cookies are being brought into the centre stage to talk with the Taliban.

Suffice to say, the hasty conclusion that Americans are marching out of Afghanistan is completely unwarranted. A complex 3-way diplomatic pirouette is playing out between the Trump administration (Khalilzad), Pakistan and the Taliban.

(US spe. rep. Zalmay Khalilzad with Pak COAS Gen. Qamar Bajwa, Rawalpindi, Dec 19, 2018)

Besides, it may not even be in Pakistan or Taliban’s interests to humiliate the Americans and frog march them out of the Hindu Kush. In fact, there is good reason to conclude that Islamabad and Taliban do not want an American disengagement from Afghanistan. The Taliban regime in Kabul was desperately keen to do mutually beneficial business with Washington. It was keen to gain international legitimacy and UN aid. The Americans too disconnected from the Taliban only after the 9/11 attacks.

Delhi ought to have a historical memory – South Block, in particular would even have institutional memory – that in the quicksands of Afghan politics, alignments keep changing and one must be nimble-footed in order to catch up with the quirks of shifting moods and calculations of various protagonists. For example, Indians may think Saleh is “our man in Kabul” – like Abdullah Abdullah in a bygone era – but then, Saleh is ultimately an ambitious Afghan politician, too, who is a stakeholder in the emerging scenario in his country.

That is why, one-dimensional, zero-sum mindset is inappropriate in the rapidly changing Afghan situation. Let me recount a funny episode of the Indian establishment hosting in 1998 a colorful Afghan Mujahideen from northern Afghanistan laboring under the impression that he was “cultivable” and could be “our man” and was trusted by Ahmed Shah Massoud as a worthy figure in the Northern Alliance, but only to be shocked and dismayed and rendered speechless (and probably ashamed) when it transpired that within the week of his return from India after enjoying our lavish hospitality, he proceeded to join the Taliban movement! Apparently, he had been secretly talking to the Taliban and Pakistani intermediaries for months! Why don’t we learn from such tragi-comic mistakes?

At any rate, this is hardly the situation to return to time past and search out the other regional states who had propped up the Northern Alliance in late 1990s. Or, for that matter, to find a berth in the Hindu Kush where cold blasts from the New Cold War may be blowing already. The point is, no knee-jerk reaction is warranted.

Remember that the actual western military presence in Afghanistan works out close to 40-45000 personnel. It is not as if Pentagon is going to put them in flights shortly and take them home. Even in practical terms, the vacation of a 17-year old occupation of a faraway, rugged country is no picnic. In fact, it needs the concurrence of the enemy.

The Indian analysts cannot grasp the full reach of the emerging paradigm because they are hopelessly entrapped in a mindset of their own making. The heart of the matter is that Pakistan is moving onto an entirely different trajectory and it is a historic transition from a national security state to development-oriented regional integration. We are choosing to ignore it deliberately, but the sooner we grasp this reality, the better. Unfortunately, this is proving difficult because India’s own transition in the recent years has been in an exactly opposite direction toward a national security state. (The Indian state is preparing to launch the bizarre Orwellian venture of tapping the phones and internet links of each of our 1.3 billion citizens.)

Quite obviously, if Delhi remains obdurate about viewing Afghanistan through the prism of its troubled relations with Pakistan, it will only get marginalized. Peace is an imperative need of regional security and with or without India’s help, the peace process will make progress. It is in India’s interests to be in sync with this geopolitical reality. Of course, we will be exceedingly foolish to try to be a “spoiler.”

To my mind, if Delhi has a constructive role to play today, it is in leveraging its influence with the hardline “anti-Taliban” elements in Afghanistan to come round to accepting that an end to this horrific war is an imperative need of our times. Now, there are specific things that Delhi can do, which our establishment should be knowing fully well. In my opinion, our talking point with Khalilzad should be as to what we can do for him, who is on a desperate mission to negotiate an end to the war in the soonest possible way, rather than what he or the US can do for India.