A one-sided accord

The presence of the Indian ambassador to Qatar at the ceremony to seal the US-Taliban peace agreement, which aims to mark the end of 18 years of war, masks the paltry gains that accrue to India from the deal. The two agreements are one-sided and designed to deliver electoral gains for US President Donald Trump without reciprocal conditions on a terrorist group that threatens the security architecture of the region. The agreements set out a path to peace over the next 14 months: They involve a drawdown of US troops from 12,000-14,000 to 8,000 in four and a half months and prisoner swaps starting March 10 — the start date for an intra-Afghan dialogue — and extending over three months. The US has also committed to taking Taliban leaders off the UN Security Council’s sanctions list by May 29, 2020, a move that will help Pakistan avert a blacklisting on the upcoming Financial Action Task Force assessment. The most onerous reciprocity the deal places on the Taliban is the non-binding assurance that no groups inimical to the US and its allies will be allowed to function in the country. 

There are several worries for India embedded in this transparently inadequate deal, chiefly New Delhi’s relations with the Taliban and its links with Pakistan. Those relations have been fraught ever since the Taliban played a key role, together with Pakistan’s ISI, in hijacking IC 814 to force the release of three terrorists lodged in Indian jails. India has consistently supported non-Taliban forces, such as the Northern Alliance, recognises Ashraf Ghani’s democratically elected government — which is, significantly, not a party to the pull-out agreement — and retains contacts with non-Pashtun groups. 

At the people-to-people level, India enjoys considerable popularity owing to its solid development work and the asylum it granted to Afghans at the height of the Taliban insurgency. But the hard fact is that the Taliban has been given a carte blanche to re-establish its medieval, heroin-financed caliphate once the US forces depart. This is likely to see the triumph of the powerful Peshawar-based warlord Sirajuddin Haqqani. Though Mr Haqqani wrote in the The New York Times  last week endorsing the deal, it is impossible to infer that the Taliban’s most militarily dominant faction is committed to peace. His shadowy network has close links with the Al Qaeda, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Kashmir-focused terror outfit. Even if he abides by the commitment not to attack US allies, it is unclear if India falls in that category. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said India hoped to play a role in the “intra-Afghan” dialogue that will follow between the Taliban, the government in Kabul, and other Afghan factions. Prospects of this dialogue occurring at all look bleak. 

First, President Ashraf Ghani has already declined to follow the timetable for prison releases. Second, Afghanistan is facing an internal crisis since a five-month stalemate over elections has Mr Ghani’s leading opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, threatening to form a parallel government. In this confusion, it may be wise for India to engage. But it is no less important for the government to prepare for more trouble along the Kashmir border too.  

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