US-Taliban Talks: A Tricky Situation for India in Afghanistan
With the rise of Afghan society, India seems to be in a confused place on its own strategic goals in the country.
Over the past week, a flux of reports on the outcomes and processes of the ongoing talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban, through its office hosted in Doha, Qatar, have sent across a wake of reactions from both stake-holders and analysts on Afghanistan.
While President Donald Trump tweeted saying the talks were going well, the US Special Representative to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalizad, also took to social media to try and quell the numerous reports, allegations and criticism on what some are seeing as an American ‘surrender’ to the Taliban after 18 years of war, more than 2,300 deaths of American soldiers, and upwards of USD 2 trillion dollars in expenses.
The talks between the US and Taliban have reached a point where the latter’s main areas of concerns are being addressed, turning the tables of the Afghan war mandate on its head.
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The ‘mainstreaming’ of the Taliban is not just underway, but making significant strides, with the group’s Doha office gaining significant frequent flyer miles, as the likes of Europe, Russia and China try to court them and gain a piece of the reconciliation pie.
Amongst all of this, worryingly, is the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which seemingly has become a moot spectator to its own fate.
“We made significant progress on two vital issues: counter-terrorism and troop withdrawal,” Khalizad tweeted, adding that these were only preliminary common grounds accepted between the two sides, and that the road to actual fructification of any solid agreement was going to be lengthy.
“This is a moment for Afghans to begin to heal old wounds and chart a new course for their country,” he added.
It is interesting to note here that, despite the two decade long war, the Afghan Taliban is in fact not on the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organisations.
What is India’s Stake in the Rise of Afghan Society?
Between all this euphoria and diplomatic kerfuffle over the future of Afghanistan’s security and democratic architecture, India, one of the larger stake holders in the rise of Afghan society after the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 seems to be in a confused place on its own strategic goals in the country.
Amongst the rush for Afghan reconciliation, New Delhi seems to have found itself as a spectator in a stadium it helped build, being left out from most such talks, after spending a decade of seemingly telling itself that it had made significant strides in Afghanistan’s political direction.
While India does enjoy good reputation amongst the Afghan people as a force of development, not war, the lack of growth and depth beyond economic diplomacy and soft-power has finally brought up the road-blocks that many had feared.
Is Taliban’s Outreach Exclusive to US?
The outreach to the Taliban has not been exclusive to the Americans, as over the past two years, the group has visited the likes of Europe, China, Central Asia and Russia to hedge their bets, almost getting an ala-carte menu on what kind of deal, and with whom, they would like to strike as they gain a significant upper hand in their positioning.
To back this, the group has made steady yet significant strides in regaining territorial control in the country.
According to recent reports released by the Special Investigator General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Afghan government controls or influences 219 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts (53.8 percent), and insurgencies, mostly the Taliban, control or influence another 12.3 percent while the remaining 33.9 percent are contested.
A sudden, or curated American withdrawal from Afghanistan could cause stress to Indian interests in the region as the very idea of an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ process collapses.
New Delhi’s celebrated Afghan policy has serious limitations thanks to its own claustrophobic design by choosing to ride the coattails of the Soviet Union’s policy for the same earlier, and now relying on the Americans.
India, through patting its own back with its outreach, seemingly did not install mechanisms that would allow it to leverage its own space in the political dimensions of Afghanistan.
Relatively non-descript deployments under the guise of “advisers” to train the Afghan National Army, which New Delhi already does in India, could have created significant oasis of clout directly with not just the Afghan power structures, but Western powers as well.
According to one report, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy, Alejandro Alvargonzalez said that while India has a prominent place in Afghanistan, it is Pakistan that plays the most important role. In October last year, Islamabad released Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar from detention, who is now expected to be playing a critical role in negotiating on behalf of the Afghan Taliban.
The security situation, of course, also remains lucid. Even as events in Afghanistan unfold, seven Indian engineers kidnapped in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province last May remain captive with next to no updates by the Indian government.
According to some sources, Russia orchestrated outreach to the Taliban demanding safety for the kidnapped engineers. Though not independently verified, if true, it showcases the lack of Indian influence’s depth in the country’s 33 percent ‘contested’ ecosystem.
There is little denying that for the US, Islamabad plays a far critical role in Afghanistan.
However, New Delhi not having its own strong spheres of influence within Afghan polity places it in a difficult position on how the Taliban could re-establish itself on the political front.
New Delhi’s positioning of ‘no good terrorism or bad terrorism’, while perhaps ethically sound, has turned counterproductive, firmly placing India’s Afghanistan policy between a rock and a hard place, with no easy answers left on either the Taliban or the Pakistan front.
(Kabir Taneja is an Associate Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and leads their West Asia/Middle East program. He also curates ORF’s Tracking ISIS Influence in India program. He can be reached at @KabirTaneja. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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