Afghanistan peace process will be the stepping stone for India's leadership in changing world order
There have been some possibly game-changing incidents recently. Those were related to Afghanistan but relates closely also to Pakistan and India. For the latter, these incidents require some fervent thought, its preoccupation with the fast-spreading virus notwithstanding.
First, the most obvious and probably the least relevant, the visit of US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad to New Delhi, and his subsequent statement that India should talk directly to the Taliban. Outgoing State department head for South Asia Alice Wells topped that with her statement that India was a 'critical player in Afghanistan, rather a change from the stance of excluding New Delhi for years due to Pakistan's strong objections. Then came a definite statement from Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban 'spokesperson' that it had no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.
This followed a series of tweets ostensibly from a senior Taliban functionary that the Taliban would now shift its attention to Kashmir. The Taliban have said this before, but the timing is crucial. On 1 May, Shaheen for the first time was invited to an online interview as part of a seminar organised by a Delhi based think tank. The interview by a senior police officer was clearly aiming for specific answers to the question of how to break the logjam between Kabul and the Taliban.
At that interview, Shaheen wondered why this was the first time he had been invited in his official position by an Indian group, and accused Delhi of hearing only one side of the story. The interview also showed that the Taliban continued to adroitly exploit Kabul's divisions to the full. Their refusal to accept Kabul's negotiating team was after all being echoed by Afghans themselves.
Two weeks later, came the series of surprise events. On 17 May, a power-sharing deal was announced with President Ashraf Ghani agreeing that CEO Abdullah Abdullah's party be given half the cabinet posts. Abdullah was also made chairman of the High Council that negotiates peace.
Days later came the announcement by the Taliban of a ceasefire for Eid ul Fitr, a gesture that Kabul reciprocated by releasing a tranche of prisoners. More surprises were to come. The Taliban appointed a Shia Hazara Mawlawi Mehdi Mujhaid as a district governor for his home district Balkhab. Mehdi is hardly a person of influence to make much difference to an ethnic group that has been heavily targeted by the Taliban. But the gesture, the very first of the kind, was significant. The Taliban were reaching out. They meant business.
For India, the question of talking to the Taliban has so far hinged on one central issue that the grouping was wholly controlled by the Pakistanis, which was evident during the IC814 hijacking of 1999. Since then, it is true that the Taliban relationship with its mentor has seen its ups and downs, particularly when Islamabad has seen fit to imprison or murder leaders who did not toe its line.
The present leader of the negotiating team Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a founder of the Taliban, and an Afghan to the core of his heart was one such and was kept under arrest for nine long years for daring to open links to Kabul for peace. Baradar is now heading the Doha office. But his family appears to be still in Pakistan. The effect of that on his negotiating position can hardly be wondered at.
Here's another issue. The Defence Intelligence Agency analyses agree with Indian reservations. A recently released Report to Congress quoted it as saying that Pakistan will continue to influence the peace talks and that the Taliban effectively continue to be dependent on its for shelter. But there's a thought here. The members of the Doha office, which includes five detainees from Guantanamo, is as Afghan as it is likely to get.
Leaders like Baradar and Mullah Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa are respected on their own merits, unlike others who derive their clout from Pakistani support. India's position that the peace talks should be 'Afghan led' is more or less met. It will also want to see whether Taliban operational leaders " also Afghan " have the stomach or the capacity to get rid of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed cadres from its ranks.
The answer to that is, probably. But for that, they need the resources and the space to free themselves from an oppressive Pakistan hand. If Kabul and the international community were able to offer that space to a section of 'free' Taliban, much might be accomplished.
A second causal factor for the shifts noted above is that the economic costs of COVID-19 have in all probability hugely increased the US urgency to leave Afghanistan. That translates into a greater willingness to leave Pakistani objections aside for India's support in the one area where it still holds the cards; which is the trust that it enjoys within Kabul, and among the Afghan people.
Though India has more faith in Abdullah Abdullah, rather than the mercurial Ghani, its fundamental operating principle has been that a legitimate government should be central to talks, and not a sideshow. Khalilzad may swear that he 'consults' Kabul on everything, but the US-Taliban peace agreement was negotiated over Kabul's head and with scant regard for its negotiating space. It is undoubtedly true that a divided Kabul hasn't helped Afghan or US interests. The power-sharing deal is, therefore, a major breakthrough and the White House could not be more relieved. It seems therefore that at least one serious impediment to the intra Afghan dialogue has been removed.
A third factor arises directly from the above. With the US troops readying to come down from 12,000 odd to the low thousands, two issues arise. One is that while the White House wants a quick and speedy 'out', the US intelligence community is highly unlikely to simply throw in the bag in such a volatile area. Indian and US Agencies enjoy a degree of confidence, and New Delhi would be a preferred partner who " unlike Pakistan " has strong stakes in regional stability, particularly as it stares down an increasingly hostile China.
Then there is also the fact that nature abhors a vacuum. Chinese munificence is likely to follow soon, and a few million yen can go a long way in cash-starved Afghanistan. New Delhi has no alternative but to combine forces with others to offer Kabul an alternative. India has palpably hesitated on offering Kabul infrastructure that it fears will be eventually used by the Taliban. The Chahbahar port is only one example.
The fact that "Kabul" could include the Taliban cannot deter New Delhi. Between the two, Beijing is by far the greater threat. And particularly because its Afghan policy seems to be steered by Pakistan.
Finally, there is the basic fact that the Taliban have never shown the slightest inclination to interfere in Kashmir or indeed shown any particular virulence against India. Attacks on Indian missions have been clearly traced back to Pakistan in the past, and the IC-814 incident was more than a decade ago. A lot of blood has flowed down the Amu Darya since then. Afghanistan has changed too, and it will demand more rights and privileges than a previous Taliban government offered. There is much that India can offer to help in governance and aid.
In sum, therefore, it seems India could gain by talking to the Taliban, but with two caveats. First, it must on no account be seen as abandoning Kabul, which will need all the clout it can get in forthcoming intra-Afghan talks. Therefore a reaching out should be done quietly and semi-officially. Second, it must eventually be accompanied by a reach out to China first, and then Pakistan.
That may seem 'Mission Impossible' at a time when Chinese troops are knocking at our gates. But if there's anything that the pandemic has taught us it is this. Matters can change very rapidly indeed. Get going with the possible, meanwhile. Just remember that the impossible could catch up.