The Taliban delegation at the opening ceremony of intra-Afghan talks, Doha, Qatar, September 12, 2020
The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad was roundly criticised by Indian commentators when he last passed through Delhi in May and advised the officials he met with an earthy sense of realism and foreboding that it’s high time they got down from the high horse to try and begin a conversation with the Taliban.
The advice was well-meaning and pragmatic but the sense of urgency was lacking in Delhi which was rooted in the belief that the peace talks were aeons away. Indeed, the Afghan peace process was struggling to be born at that time but it was already clear that the US was determined to push for the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel of the forever war in time for President Trump to make some grand announcement on the eve of the November election.
Incidentally, a poll conducted by the New York-based Eurasia Group Foundation this week shows that two-thirds of Americans support Trump’s deal with the Taliban to extricate the US from the 19-year war in Afghanistan — and, only 10-15% favour continued military deployment.
Instead of rationally applying their mind, the Indian officials reportedly made a litany of pre-conditions to Khalilzad — the issue of terror emanating from Pakistan impacting peace in Afghanistan, “protection of rights of all sections of the Afghan society, including Afghan Hindus and Sikhs,” and so on.
The Indian readout said, “It was emphasised (to Khalilzad) that putting an end to terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries is necessary for enduring and sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan.” It added that India also expressed its deep “concern at the upsurge in violence” and extended support for “call for an immediate ceasefire” and need to “assist the people of Afghanistan in dealing with coronavirus pandemic.”
Simply put, our chaps were hanging tough. Suffice to say, when Khalilzad arrives in Delhi later today for yet another stopover, he is sure to get a pleasant surprise. After much huffing and puffing, the Indian establishment has calmed down and is doing precisely what he told them to do in May.
On top of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar addressing the Doha forum virtually on Sept 12, a senior officer from his ministry was rushed to Qatar post-haste to be in the conference hall for the opening ceremony of the intra-Afghan talks. A senior Indian official since claimed, “There is no ambiguity on the Indian position vis-à-vis engagement with Afghan parties as Indian delegation sat on the same table as the Afghan government as well as the Taliban. The host nation Qatar could have only made this possible after talking to all principal stake-holders in the Afghan dialogue.”
The unconditional U-turn in India’s Taliban policy is so complete that the Indian establishment is overnight celebrating the retreat as a grand historic success of diplomacy. Oh, what an ecstatic moment — to be able to sit around a big table with the Taliban!
The high probability is that Indians will have to settle for the shade for quite a while. From this point onward, the advantage goes to the Taliban — and Pakistan. The Taliban has reestablished control over many Afghan districts and killed tens of thousands of US-backed Afghan forces. With dwindling American support, Afghan forces’ capacity to withstand Taliban attacks will be significantly reduced in the period ahead.
That means the Taliban is set to gain control of even more territories unless it agrees to an immediate ceasefire, which seems unlikely. Just look at today’s developments — a district governor in Logar province reported that the Taliban attacked his residence killing one of his brothers and a personal bodyguard, wounding another brother; an intelligence agency officer and three others were wounded in Jalalabad city when the vehicle of the spy agency was ambushed in broad daylight with an improvised explosive device.
The main problem for India is that it stands in abject isolation today apropos the Afghan situation. Its ability to influence the course of the intra-Afghan negotiations is nil. None of the demands that Indian officials made to Khalilzad in May has been fulfilled. The Taliban maintains a strategic ambivalence on where it stands on a host of contentious issues such as the form of future government, women’s rights, new constitution and so on.
Alas, Modi government remained the pillion rider on the Harley-Davidson bike all the way through the past decade and a half, but the bike is about to speed away to the far horizon heading for North America. Paradoxically, India’s best option today might be to act as a “spoiler”, but then, with the protracted standoff with China in Ladakh and with the LOC and J&K in a state of tension, a military deployment to Afghanistan is simply beyond India’s reach.
This is where the recent reshuffle of the Taliban delegation at the Doha talks assumes significance. Much speculation surrounds the appointment of the hardline cleric Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani as the Taliban’s chief negotiator for peace talks.
So far, all we know is that the ultraconservative Mawlawi Haqqani who replaces the previous “moderate” leadership of Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai and Mullah Baradar is a close associate of the Taliban supremo Haibatullah Akhunzada, and his appointment could be an attempt by the core leadership to reassert its direct control over the upcoming negotiations in Qatar.
But the big question is about Mawlawi Haqqani’s standing with Pakistan. The cleric cannot be a stranger to the Pakistani security establishment, since he had spent years lying low in Quetta, where the Afghan Taliban leadership has been based since the US invasion in 2001, and until recently he ran a madrasah from where he led the Taliban’s judiciary and headed a powerful council of clerics that issued religious edicts to regulate the ideology of the Islamic Emirate.
The point is Mawlawi Haqqani, who is in his early 60s, has been propelled into the spotlight and appointed the Taliban’s chief negotiator for peace talks just when the last hurdle of exchange of prisoners was overcome and the stage was being set in Doha for the curtain to rise.
Who stands to gain? China is actively promoting the extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan. And Pakistan just tightened its grip on the peace talks. The crunch time has come. Pakistan holds a veto card and is determined to use it to marginalise India from the Afghan peace process. Given the Modi government’s hostility toward Pakistan and China, nothing else needs be expected.
The assassination attempt on First Vice-President Amrullah Saleh a week ago should be taken as a stark warning. India has lost the proxy war and this is how victorious Afghan groups have always entered the home stretch. At the very least, our pathway to the Taliban preferably should have run parallel with an overture to Pakistan. Khalilzad cannot do much to help us now.