With Washington keen to pull out the remaining American troops from Afghanistan, sooner rather than later, the question whether India should talk to the Taliban is being debated in official circles in Delhi. A post Ashraf Ghani strategy needs to be worked out, as parties prepare for the elusive intra- Afghan talks.
The talks between the Taliban and other political entities in Afghanistan, more so the Ghani faction is being held up, thanks to the reluctance of the President to release the Taliban prisoners. The efforts are on, with the US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, President Donald Trump’s go-to man for Afghanistan, making another hurried visit to Kabul last week, to convince Ghani to get the dialogue started by keeping the US end of the bargain and releasing the prisoners. The Taliban had insisted that talks would begin only after their men were freed. Ghani’s reluctance to do so is to buy time to consolidate his position.
India’s relation with Afghanistan
Last Thursday (May 7) Zalmay Khalilzad flew to India after talks in Kabul and Islamabad, to brief New Delhi on the peace efforts. He met external affairs minister S Jaishankar and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. At the discussions, the envoy asked India to engage in the Afghan peace process and begin engagement with the Taliban. Khalilzad who had worked hard for a deal with the Taliban, is keen that India gets to exchange views with the most important players in Afghanistan. US, keen to get its troops out of Afghanistan, if possible, before Trump’s re-election bid in November, wants all regional powers including India to be engaged in the Afghan peace process. Significantly, New Delhi has stayed out of the consultations on Afghanistan but has solidly backed the Afghan government’s position.
Successive governments in India, both the Congress and the BJP have stood solidly behind the democratically elected government of Afghanistan. New Delhi worked closely with both former president Hamid Karzai and current incumbent Ashraf Ghani. That move had paid rich dividends for India. New Delhi and Kabul have spoken out strongly against Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror groups and spoken in unison to the international community about Pakistan. In turn Islamabad has pointed fingers at India and Afghanistan for destabilising its troubled Balochistan province.
Nobody can tell whether the already frayed peace process will go off the ground, and the feuding parties can hammer out a political deal. Yet it is also time for India to begin to calibrate its position in Afghanistan. For a start, India definitely needs to be involved in what Khalilzad calls, “internal engagement in Afghanistan.’’ On the ground this will mean talking to all sections, including the Taliban.
Taliban, the reality post Ghani
India should not place all its eggs in one basket, and look ahead to a post Ghani future. Ashraf Ghani, like Hameed Karzai before him, has been a good friend to India. But tomorrow, if Ghani is not in the picture, India should not be left high and dry. One would have expected that New Delhi had by now made contact with the Taliban. Iran and Russia together with India backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance when the Taliban was in power in Kabul. Yet both Iran and Russia have been dealing with the Taliban the last couple of years. Delhi has steadfastly refused.
The nearest India got to the Taliban was last February when Moscow hosted an intra-Afghan dialogue. Two retired ambassadors were sent to represent India. Both said that they had no exchanges with the Taliban delegation and were there mainly as onlookers. When the US-Taliban agreement was signed in Doha, the Indian ambassador was invited together with other diplomats and dignitaries, but in that again India merely marked its presence.
Taliban’s Pak connect that worries India
India has possibly kept away from the Taliban because of its closeness to Pakistan. Knowing that Pakistan had in the past used the Taliban, more so the Haqqani network to target Indian interests in Afghanistan does not help. In fact the bomb attack on the Indian embassy in 2008, which killed the defence attaché and a young IFS officer cannot be forgotten. Intelligence agencies also believe that the recent attack on a Sikh gurdwara in Afghanistan was planned by Pakistan’s spy agency the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and carried out by the Haqqani network. Indeed, Sirajuddin Haqqani is now the deputy leader of the Taliban.
Pakistan is keen to ensure that India’s wings are clipped and its interests rolled back in a Taliban controlled Afghanistan. It will do all it can to ensure that India has a minimal role in the peace process. Unhappy with the Americans for wanting to draw in India, it has, however, not reacted publicly to the US suggestion. More likely the ISI and the military will work through the Haqqani network and the Taliban to ensure that New Delhi is kept out.
India’s stand on the Taliban has been clear from the beginning. The process had to be “Afghan led and Afghan owned,’’ with the proviso that all gains made in the last 19 years on women’s freedom and the democratic system must be in place. During the Taliban occupation girls’ education was banned and women could not step out without a male family member accompanying them. Whatever the Taliban may have said to the Americans, the fact remains that if the Taliban returns to power in Afghanistan, sharia law will be imposed.
Need to act for own good
However it would be wise for India to begin establishing some kind of line with the Taliban. It should take Ashraf Ghani into confidence. The American suggestion could be for US self-interest, but will serve India well. It is a practical one.
Talking with the Taliban does not mean that India supports the group. But if and when a peace deal is struck, the Taliban will play an important role in the future politics of the country. India has to prepare for that eventuality. The Taliban is also aware of the development work India has done in Afghanistan and its popularity among the ordinary Afghans. Pakistan will try its best to ensure that the Taliban does not respond to any overture from India.
During the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and while the Taliban was in power in Kabul, India was hated in that country. But it did not take long for things to turn around, despite the best efforts of Pakistan. That can still happen. But a start has to be made. Delhi needs to talk to the Taliban and get an assurance that anti-India terror groups will not operate from its soil. It is a tall ask. But diplomacy like politics is the art of possible.
(The author is a senior journalist who has worked for several national newspapers, specialising in foreign affairs)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)