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India’s Afghan conundrum

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India has largely stayed away from taking part in war in Afghanistan and instead has focused on development of infrastructure in the war torn country, but it doesn’t mean it has turned a blind eye towards war. India has contributed to war efforts by providing training to Afghan security officials, vehicles including attack helicopters and logistics support. This approach is consistent with New Delhi’s view on “Redeveloping and Rebuilding Afghanistan” and not distinguishing between the so called “Good Taliban and Bad Taliban”, a term India has often reiterated on international forum to build a consensus towards action against terrorism.

For some time now parties engaged in the war are looking to establish peace and end the 40 year old war. Ashraf Ghani, incumbent president of Afghanistan, showed the willingness in June 2018 by declaring a unilateral ceasefire towards the end of ‘Ramdan’ month which was later accepted by Taliban. During ceasefire, militants could be seen hugging security force members and taking selfies with civilians. More recently, Moscow hosted a conference for peace talks in November 2018, Taliban agreed to take part and even Afghanistan sent officials of High Peace Council (HPC), a body formed in 2010 to oversee and hold peace talks with Taliban. Although HPC officials do not represent Afghanistan government, it still is a significant step as Afghan delegates and Taliban were in the same room.

In the conference, HPC invited Taliban for direct talks with Afghan government. Conference was also attended by officials from USA, India, Pakistan and China. Just a few days after the conference, USA declared removal of half of its troops from Afghanistan. Scaling back of troops is also a campaign promise of Donald Trump, but it should be noted that Taliban also has been demanding full withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan before any meaningful talks can take place.

Peace talks is certainly a welcome change but it also poses challenge for India as it goes against the pillars on which New Delhi’s Afghanistan policy is based upon. India believes that any peace process should be “Afghan owned and Afghan led”, a view supported by Afghanistan government too. Also India’s stance of not differentiating between ‘good terrorism and bad terrorism’ holds it back from playing a bigger role in peace talks which is probably why Indian delegation to Moscow conference consisted of only 2 retired diplomats and took part as an observer. However now that all the parties are engaged in peace process, India risks getting isolated if similar policy continues. India has invested a lot of time and resources, an Afghanistan where Taliban is a legitimate power and which is also friendly towards Pakistan poses a serious security and strategic challenges to India. If this peace process continues and doesn’t fall apart like many others have earlier before, New Delhi will need to shed idealism that guides its Afghan policy.

However it isn’t certain that this peace process will meet a different fate than others before it as parties who are directly involved in the war have a lot of friction between them. USA and Russia are cold war enemies and USA wouldn’t like to see Moscow led peace efforts succeed and neither can there be any peace talks without USA as it is deeply involved in Afghanistan. Moscow and Taliban are old enemies. Taliban and USA have not had any engagement recently. And finally, Afghanistan government and Taliban both want completely different things for Afghanistan. Taliban wished to establish Islamic law and doesn’t want constitution interfering with Sharia whereas Afghanistan government is demanding that Taliban accepts the constitution of the country in its current form. Any engagement between parties that have so much enmity amongst themselves is destined to fail. For such a scenario, New Delhi’s current policy of only ‘observing’ the developments is fine and no drastic change is required.

A major challenge for India arises in case peace talks progress and Taliban seems poised to get a political space in the country. In this case as already suggested by many foreign policy watchers, India can start bilateral talks with Taliban, Iran has already offered India to use their influence on Taliban to start bilateral dialogue with them, and try to limit Pakistan influence and ensure safety and security of Indian interests in Afghanistan. The biggest problem with this option is India’s own position on terrorism i.e. not distinguishing between good and bad terrorism. India has been very vocal in UN about global community not doing enough to counter terrorism, even though most of such speeches are targeted towards Pakistan and terror groups based within. If New Delhi now enters into talks with Taliban, it will surely weaken India’s position in UN on forming a global alliance for combating terrorism.

However India will not be the only country to have entered into talks with terror groups in the name of national interest even after investing considerable amount of resources in war against terrorism. USA held bilateral talks with Taliban, which even Taliban declared as helpful. Taliban’s delegation was also quoted as saying “once breakthrough is started, it will be stunning for all”. With diplomatic engagement India must try to ensure that our current and future projects in Afghanistan do not come under attack even if Taliban and current government enter into a power sharing agreement, however much of it depends on Pakistan as it hold a significant influence over Taliban and there is no reason to believe that Pakistan will not use it against India.

If peace talks progress, it opens up another option for India, which is to engage with factions that oppose Taliban. There will always be people who will not surrender to Taliban’s oppressive regime and challenge it. India can support them to look after its own interest. Supporting non-state actors with similar interests is something that all major powers engage in to further or protect their interests in a region. This is not the first time that India will do so in Afghanistan. India supported Northern Alliance, a military organisation, which battled Taliban and brought down its government in 2001. Some of its leaders such as Abdul Rahsid Dostum and Mohammed Mohaqiq formed a political party in 2011 called National Front of Afghanistan which is generally regarded as Northern Alliance today. It is vehemently opposed to Taliban returning to power. Dostum is currently the First Vice President of Afghanistan and Mohaqiq is Deputy Chief Executive of Afghanistan. These are the positions that can have impact on outcome of peace talks.

India cannot remain dependent on USA for looking after its national and strategic interest. Just like USA has declared withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan for its own interest, India needs to take its own actions. For long India has relied on soft power in Afghanistan but if such a situation develops it must not shy away form using hard power. While sending own troops in Afghanistan would be foolish, entrusting intelligence agencies to keep the situation favourable in Afghanistan is certainly feasible.

The point is, whether peace process falters or progresses as Afghan led or otherwise, India shall have a role to play in Afghanistan.

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