The optics surrounding the just-concluded visit of United States President Donald Trump indicates India is an important ally for Washington. Important ally, yes. But there is a limit to how much influence India wields over the US.
A case in point is the peace deal that Trump is scheduled to sign later this week with the Afghan Taliban, a move that is worrying the Indian government. For, the Taliban in the past has had no love lost for India. The Taliban was incubated by Pakistan and has since remained close to India’s sparring neighbour.
In October 2001, the US at the head of an international coalition invaded Afghanistan in retaliation to the 9/11 attacks engineered by the al-Qaeda. Its chief Osama bin Laden masterminded the attack from his base in Afghanistan. The Taliban, a close ally of bin Laden, refused to hand him over to the US, provoking the then George W Bush administration to attack Afghanistan.
The Taliban government was ousted from Kabul in a matter of days, but the US-backed government that replaced it could never get complete control of the country. Large swathes of Afghanistan including the province of Kandahar could never be prised out of Taliban control.
For India, the US attack on Afghanistan and the Taliban’s ouster came as a blessing as the succeeding Hamid Karzai government was pro-New Delhi. Ever since the Taliban had formed government in Kabul in 1996, India had been edged out of Afghanistan. Until then India had historically been close to successive governments in Afghanistan and was a long-term strategic partner.
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The Taliban was a creation of Pakistan and nurtured by its intelligence agency, the ISI with support from Saudi Arabia and the US. Comprising a section of the Mujahidin who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Taliban was, therefore, a natural ally of Pakistan.
No surprise therefore when a group of hijackers in 1999 forced an Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar, where they received full protection from the then Taliban government. Under the protection of the Taliban, the hijackers forced India to free three Kashmiri separatists who were then flown to Kandahar in exchange for the plane and its hijackers.
For all practical purposes, India completely lost its hold over Afghanistan. It regained its eminence only after the US invasion and the ouster of the Taliban. Since then India has played a major role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, by sending in engineers, technicians and planners who have developed that country’s infrastructure, community development, education and the social services sector.
India has opened not less than 104 consulates across Afghanistan. In short, New Delhi was back in business in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, Pakistan lost its clout after the dethroning of the Taliban. In an expression of frustration, Indian consulates were attacked several times allegedly at the behest of Pakistan’s ISI, the worst being the bombing of the consulate in Kabul in 2008 killing 40.
The Afghan government, on several occasions, expressed resentment at Islamabad’s link to the Taliban and the continuing violence in Afghanistan. The US too came near breaking point with Pakistan on its suspected support of the Taliban and providing them safety on its side of the long border with Afghanistan.
The Trump government has taken the help of Pakistan in its pre-deal negotiations with the Taliban and will need Islamabad to back it up to ensure that a peace agreement is successful. This is one reason why Trump, during his recent visit to India, may not have taken a harsher view of Pakistan’s cross-border involvement with India, mentioning it only in passing.
It is in this context that the signing of a peace deal with the Taliban has been viewed seriously in New Delhi, as it has the potential to alter the balance of power in the region in Pakistan’s favour especially where Kabul is concerned.
Though the Taliban has made conciliatory moves and even expressed its desire to work alongside the current Afghan dispensation, doubts still persist. The Taliban has specifically announced it will honour all the rights of women including work-related and in education. These may be to satisfy Western demands that women should be treated on par with men.
For India the return of the Taliban, even if it is not in the vitriolic form it was earlier, means a new challenge on its western front.
In a sense, the upcoming peace deal is also a defeat for the United States. For nearly 19 years the US-led coalition in conjunction with the Afghan government attempted to decimate the Taliban. Now, it looks like this effort has all but failed. On February 29, Trump is scheduled to sign a peace agreement with a resilient Taliban at Doha in Qatar, where negotiations have been held between the Taliban and the US for several months to figure out a way to end the conflict in Afghanistan.
The agreement makes it clear that the US has given up on its mission to eliminate the Taliban.
Under the “leap” agreement (as the date for signing the deal is February 29) US troops will withdraw from Afghanistan leaving the government in Kabul to negotiate with the Taliban to figure out a consensus. The US will remain in the background to facilitate the discussions and to ensure that all sides stick to the agreement.
If an experimental ceasefire leading up to the peace deal holds and then the agreement is indeed signed, Afghanistan will benefit. So will Pakistan. But, India? A looming uncertainty over Afghanistan is something that India would have discussed with the US. But Washington does not seem to have taken Indian concerns into its decision-making as it sees the deal with Taliban will free up its forces in Afghanistan, a promise that Trump made in 2018 which he intends to honour.
When Taliban 2.0 returns to power in Afghanistan, if it has indeed mellowed down, that will be a relief to India. But on the face of it, given the tough fight Taliban has engaged in with the US-Afghan army combine, chances of a mellowed down Taliban seem rather remote.
So, if India’s worst fears come true, February 29 will see the return to the politics of the late 90’s when India was persona non grata in Afghanistan. As for Trump, he would have visited India without hardly doing anything to allay New Delhi’s fears vis-a-vis the Taliban.