Endgame in Afghanistan

Little hope should be placed on the reassuring words from the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation on the fruitful progress of talks between the US government and the Taliban in Doha. All indications suggest that it is the extremist outfit that holds all the cards — principally because US President Donald Trump has openly revealed his desperation to withdraw troops from that country. The US is said to have agreed to the Taliban’s demand to withdraw foreign forces. In return, the Taliban has agreed not to host any international terrorist groups (Al Qaeda or ISIS, for instance) or allow Afghan territory to be used for terrorism purposes. As a blueprint for peace and stability, this appears to be a good starting point. But there are several unpredictable variables in the mix, especially from India’s standpoint.

First, the Taliban has not demonstrated in the past that it is a reliable partner in respecting international agreements. Second, the withdrawal of international forces places in peril the National Unity Government (NUG) under Ashraf Ghani. It is extremely likely that this popularly elected government could be ousted from power once the last foreign troops leave (the experience in Vietnam after the withdrawal of US troops in 1973 and in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 offer precedents). The Taliban remains well-funded through control of the country’s poppy fields and a booming global market for opiates (including, ironically, in the US), whereas the NUG will be struggling for resources. Third, Afghanistan is virtually a client state of a client state aligned to China, and the role and motivations of Pakistan remain opaque. Its military-intelligence complex is said to be the proxy negotiators in the current process and with tensions rising with the US, hopes of a constructive role remain low. To be sure, the appointment of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as Taliban’s chief negotiator has been taken as a sign of good faith on the Taliban’s part. But Mr Baradar had been arrested in a joint US-Pakistan operation and spent eight years under arrest in Pakistan. So he, too, is unlikely to have a free hand in the talks.

With the next round of US-Taliban talks scheduled for the end of February, it is vital that India finds some sort of access to the negotiating table. India enjoys a popular reputation in Afghanistan as much for its humanitarian projects (which are extensive, whatever Mr Trump may suggest) and the welcoming of Afghan refugees during the post-Soviet civil war as for its soft power through Bollywood. The question is whether India should talk to the Taliban in the light of recent history when the country supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, headed by the late Ahmad Shah Massoud. Given the possibility of Pakistan’s military and ISI nurturing Kashmir-focused terror outfits on Afghan territory, such participation would make sense. Besides, India has some vested economic interests in peace and stability in the region in terms of accessing the Afghan market through the Iranian port of Chabahar. Few long-time observers hold out much hope for long-term stability in Afghanistan once US troops leave, and India needs to adopt the pragmatic policy of extreme vigilance in the months ahead.

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