So US Is Talking to Taliban Now... Where Does That Leave India?
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam & Abhishek Sharma
Cameraperson: Shiv Kumar Maurya
So this is how the Afghanistan war may end – not with a bang, but with a whimper of exhausted defeat. The leader of the free world, worn down by the Taliban, seeking a deal and a way out of its 17-year quagmire of blood and treasure.
And while the Taliban has been jet-setting to Qatar and Russia to hold talks with a war-weary US, an opportunistic Russia, and opposition Afghan politicians with their eye on power, the elected Afghan government has been sidelined, protesting all the way.
But it proved to be too much for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to bear when Pakistan, who had provided critical support to the Taliban regime, was about to host the Taliban for talks on 17 February. His government lodged a formal complaint with the UN citing violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty by Pakistan’s recognition of an armed group, and the talks were swiftly cancelled... only to be rescheduled in Qatar on 25 February.
What’s India’s Problem Here?
These talks are bad news for the Ghani government, dealing with frequent and deadly Taliban attacks, and certainly for Afghan women, who were stripped of all their rights when the Taliban were last in power... but these talks are also bad news for India.
The US is, understandably, most concerned about more attacks on American soil like 9/11, emanating from an Afghanistan overrun by terrorists.
But for India, the fear is that if Pakistan-backed Taliban gain legitimacy in a new power-sharing agreement, Pakistan-backed terrorists will start filtering into Kashmir again like in the Bad Old Days of the Taliban – an untenable situation, with the restive region already a tinderbox.
And then there’s also the danger to trade.
With India now operating Chabahar port in Iran, and Afghanistan being its path into Central Asian energy markets, Pakistan-backed Taliban would pose a significant threat to costly Indian infrastructure there – infrastructure that is meant to outflank and counter Chinese and Pakistani infrastructure in Gwadar.
The Trump administration is desperate to get out after 17 years of war... and the Taliban is just desperate to finally get US boots off its neck.
The Real Deal, or a Fig Leaf?
Here's what the US wants out of a deal before it goes:
- A promise that Taliban won't let international terrorists use Afghan soil as a launchpad for attacks
- A promise that the Taliban will talk with the Afghan government
- A promise that Taliban will give women their rights
Here's the problem – Taliban promises, as analyst Sushant Sareen says, are ‘not worth the paper they're written on’.
First, with Pakistan support, there's no almost no chance of the Taliban refusing to shelter anti-India terrorists in the future.
And second, the Taliban are like the poster children for misogyny. Even the Moscow agenda only listed the path forward for women's rights "in accordance with Islamic law"... which, of course, the Taliban have always claimed that they were following while they were oppressing 50 percent of the country.
So with no plan beyond leaving a few US bases behind, many believe there's no guarantee that these "promises" will amount to anything, especially since the Taliban's core beliefs don't appear to have changed.
So, with Trump having made amply clear the US is just not interested in staying there anymore...
...the Taliban's focus will be on saying whatever they have to say to get them out in the first place.
So where does all this leave India?
Soft Power and Hardball
India's main strategy has been to leverage its immense soft power and goodwill – its strong civilisational ties, its staunch support of the elected Afghan government, its refusal to officially engage with the Taliban who destroyed the country, and its $3 billion dollars in aid and infrastructure since 2001.
But that is, after all, soft power – and this is hardball.
Having sent absolutely no soldiers to Afghanistan, India's influence is subordinate to the US' and Pakistan's.
India's strategic interests may just be too great to refuse talks. Even ex-Afghan president Hamid Karzai has implored New Delhi to engage with the Taliban so that it at least has a place at the table – forgetting, for a minute, that while he was in power in 2013, Karzai was himself staunchly against the US talking with the Taliban, even calling off his own talks with the US in protest.
Unlike Karzai, the MEA has held fast to its line of an 'Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process', rejecting any talks that don't involve the Afghan government (though it has sent unofficial observers) and still avoiding any official recognition of the Taliban.
Reports have said New Delhi has even been quietly reaching out to different factions in Afghanistan – like the Pashtuns and Hazaras – to try and cement some kind of post-deal role for itself.
Basically, India is in a pickle... without US forces there to keep the peace, India will find itself more exposed and less able to exert influence.
What would you do... would you talk to the Taliban, or not?