India shouldn’t undermine Afghan peace talks

(Handout picture of US officials at peace talks with Taliban, Doha, Qatar) 

The Press Trust of India has reported on the discussions regarding Afghanistan in Washington last week between the visiting Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and the US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad. The report carries New Delhi dateline and is attributed to ‘official sources’. 

According to the report, FS made a demarche with Khalilzad that any US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan should take place only after a new elected government takes over in Kabul and not on the basis of any interim arrangement. Separately, Hindustan Times amplified on the PTI report, citing ‘people familiar with developments’ to the effect that India is opposed to any interim government that is not ‘constitutionally mandated’ and might have members of the Taliban.

Both reports say that Khalilizad held out an assurance to FS that the security guarantee that Washington seeks from the Taliban about Afghan soil not being used for international terrorism, will also include groups that target India. 

Quite obviously, Delhi considers it advantageous to disseminate the above confidential exchange in Washington at the present juncture when US-Taliban talks regarding ‘intra-Afghan dialogue’ and ceasefire is about to commence in Doha later this month. 

Curiously, the Indian security establishment leaked the above information just the day after Pakistan PM Imran Khan claimed last Friday that peace in Afghanistan is ‘round the corner’ and can be expected in ‘coming days’. Imran Khan reportedly said, ‘A good government will be established in Afghanistan, a government where all Afghans will be represented. The war will end and peace will be established there.’  

Kabul has reacted strongly against Imran Khan’s prognosis of a ceasefire and a new representative government forming in Kabul. Of course, the present ruling elite in Kabul fear that they may become expandable in an Afghan settlement. However, they are becoming a small minority. Whereas, a large section of Afghan opinion seems to favour the idea of ‘intra-Afghan dialogue’ and a broad-based government getting established in Kabul. 

Why should India take a partisan stance in such circumstances? See an interview, here, by former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who used to be a close friend and trusted interlocutor of India. 

Delhi is demanding elections in Afghanistan ignoring that security conditions need to be created first on the ground for that purpose. Clearly, the reconciliation with the Taliban who control at least half of Afghan territory is an essential pre-requisite of the situation. 

Suffice to say, without the participation of the Taliban, election makes no sense — that is, for electing a government that enjoys legitimacy. On the other hand, the withdrawal of the US troops is a pre-condition that the Taliban has unwaveringly laid down for participating in any intra-Afghan dialogue — and latest reports are that the US is agreeable to meeting that pre-condition. 

Clearly, Delhi’s stance that US withdrawal be postponed until a settlement is in place is neither realistic nor logical. It casts India in a spoiler’s role. 

The really surprising part is that Delhi waded into the Afghan peace talks just when Kabul and Washington publicly clashed over Khalilzad’s role. The Afghan national security advisor Hamdullah Mohib has derisively called Khalilzad a ‘viceroy’ who manipulates the peace talks with a view to usurping power for himself in Kabul. Delhi should not take sides in the rift between Khalilzad and President Ashraf Ghani. It’s a dangerous gambit. 

If Delhi so desperately wants to give a lifeline to Ghani’s  circle who are its allies in Kabul, the thing to do is to depute army chief Gen. Vipin Rawat to make a quick trip to Afghanistan and evaluate how an Indian intervention, replacing the US and NATO forces, can be urgently worked out before a settlement with the Taliban takes shape so that the erstwhile puppet regime of the US in Afghanistan can be transformed into an Indian surrogate. 

If that is too weird a thing to be tried out, then the reasonable thing to do is to give the US-Taliban peace talks a fair chance. This may not be the ideal way of conflict resolution, but this is the only show in town and may serve the purpose of ending the senseless 17-year old war. 

Delhi should have understood a long time ago that the Taliban insurgency cannot be defeated militarily and the US has been pursuing the West’s interests in Afghanistan. It should have worked with like-minded regional capitals to stabilise the Afghan situation in the interest of regional security and stability. But instead, it opted to be the US’ poodle. 

Inevitably, Delhi feels let down. But that doesn’t warrant the petulance that is appearing here. When India has neither the geo-strategic clout influence nor the capacity to be prescriptive, the rational thing is to exercise strategic patience and try to come to terms with the regime that emerges out of a settlement in Afghanistan. 

It is still not too late to calibrate India’s policy in a manner that stops viewing Afghanistan as the turf to wage proxy war against Pakistan. Pakistan has legitimate interests in Afghanistan — no less than what India would have in Nepal or Bhutan. 

Arguably, a new thinking on our part reversing the policy trajectory adopted two decades ago in the late nineties will not only stop the enormous financial haemorrhage running into billions of dollars, but may even have the salutary effect of Pakistan reciprocating elsewhere on issues where India has core interests.