Afghan peace talks in Moscow
- US ready to forgive Taliban if it assures Afghan soil won’t be used to stage terror strikes
- Afghanistan second-largest recipient of Indian aid after Bhutan
- Taliban poised to take over country after American military withdrawal
Colombo, February 11: Of late, there is some realisation in India that it is time New Delhi dropped its reservations about engaging the radical Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan and participated in the ongoing peace process in that devastated country.
Involved in the peace process are the Taliban, US, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. The process has the support of Beijing.
Each participating country has its own reasons to be in the peace process. The Taliban would like to capitalise on its ground level military superiority to negotiate a deal with the US which will put it in power in Kabul without further bloodshed. The US, tired of spending USD 45 billion a year on the Afghan war, wants to withdraw with guarantees of non-aggression. Russia is interested in filling the vacuum created by the US withdrawal, and reviving its historical role in Afghanistan. Iran and Pakistan need peace in the neighbourhood for the sake of economic development. China is keen that the Taliban is brought into the national and international mainstream so that it is tamed and China’s burgeoning investments in neighbouring Pakistan are safe. China is also a neighbour.
It is widely recognised in Afghanistan that Indian development aid has benefitted ordinary Afghans. Bilateral trade is more or less balanced and is expected to touch USD 2 billion by 2020
These countries have shed their past reservations and have set aside historical memories for the sake of peace now.
The US is ready to forget and forgive the Taliban, if only it would assure Afghan soil would not be used to stage terror strikes. Strongly critical of Pakistan on the terrorism issue till recently, the US suddenly suspended criticism and sought Pakistan’s help to open up to the Taliban. The Russians forgot they were ousted from Afghanistan not so long ago by ‘Mujahideen’ who included the founders of Taliban. The erstwhile Northern Alliance groups which had fought the Taliban tooth and nail earlier are now at the negotiating table with it.
Given the emerging scenario, it is argued that India too should forget the bitter past. The Taliban had attacked Indian establishments and abducted or killed Indian expatriates. The Taliban targeted India because it has been supporting the US-backed Kabul regime and had once heavily funded the Northern Alliance when the latter was fighting the Taliban in a brutal civil war.
Strategists argue that India needs to be in Afghanistan to block Pakistan from using the Taliban to oust India altogether from Afghanistan. Others point out that India’s economic stakes in that country are too high for it to be inactive.
INDIA’S ECONOMIC STAKES
With more than USD 2 billion in Indian commitments, Afghanistan is the second-largest recipient of Indian aid after Bhutan. India built the Zaranj-Delaram highway to Iran. It constructed the Salma dam and the Pul-e-Khumri transmission line to light up Kabul. It has restored the telecommunication infrastructure in 11 provinces. About 116 small community development projects are being executed in the fields of agriculture, education, rural development, health, vocational training and solar energy.
Efforts in the education and capacity development domain include the Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health; reconstruction of Habibia School; provision of 500 annual scholarships; provision of 500 training scholarships to Afghan public servants; vocational support to Afghan women and youth; and capacity building in media and information, civil aviation, agricultural research and education, healthcare and medicinal science, tourism, education, standardisation, rural development, public administration, electoral management and local government.
In 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an additional USD 1 billion for capacity building in education, health, agriculture, skills development, women’s empowerment, energy and infrastructure building.
It is widely recognised in Afghanistan that Indian development aid has benefitted ordinary Afghans. Bilateral trade is more or less balanced and is expected to touch USD 2 billion by 2020.
TALIBAN’S MARCH AND INDIA’S RESPONSE
The Taliban is poised to take over the country after the American military withdrawal which is expected to take place before the US presidential election in November 2020. Therefore, it is felt that it is time India recognised and negotiated with the Taliban to protect its huge investments; maintain its strategic presence in the region; and checkmate troublesome Pakistan which already has good relations with the Taliban.
As on date, India is out of the peace process. This is because New Delhi is identified too closely with the Afghan Government led by President Ashraf Ghani, which the Taliban considers “illegitimate” and a “puppet” of the US. With the Taliban refusing to talk to the Ghani regime, the latter is not part of the ongoing talks. And since the Ghani Government is not there, India too is out. Like the Ghani regime, India insists that the legitimate, elected government of Afghanistan must be part of any peace process or settlement.
TALIBAN’S BLUEPRINT ENCOURAGING
Supporters of the peace process maintain that the prospects for peace are bright going by the results of the February 5-6 conference in Moscow of all Afghan groups minus the Kabul regime. The Joint Statement issued at the end of the meet could be a sound basis for domestic peace and orderly international relations.
According to the Joint Statement, all parties had agreed that: cooperation of regional countries and major countries is essential to determine a lasting and nationwide peace in Afghanistan; that values such as respect for the principles of Islam are instituted in all parts of the system; that the principle that Afghanistan is a common home to all Afghans is recognised; that there should be support to a powerful centralised government with all Afghan ethnicities having a role in it; that national sovereignty and promotion of social justice are ensured; that it is essential to keep Afghanistan neutral in all regional and international conflicts and that Afghanistan’s national and religious values are protected.
The statement sought the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country, and asked all countries to avoid interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. In return, Afghanistan assured to the international community that it would not be used against any other nation, that social, economic, political and educational rights of Afghan women in line with Islamic principles would be fostered along with the political and social rights of the entire people of Afghanistan including freedom of speech. The statement also assured that Afghanistan would accept international assistance for its reconstruction.
Recent research has established that the Taliban was keen on running a government well. It is running the administration in areas under its control in a systematic and responsible way.
India has been completely dependent on the US military presence for its protection in Afghanistan. In this context, US withdrawal would be the last thing India would want
However, the road to peace may not be smooth given the opposition President Donald Trump faces from American hardliners and the US military-industrial complex which want the war to continue. But regardless of the opposition, Trump is set to make a deal with the Taliban.
All that the US has been wanting was an agreement from Taliban to talk to the Afghan Government and co-opt it in any future political set up. But if the Taliban guarantees US security credibly; Washington may drop Kabul like a hot potato. The US had shed its reservations about Russia and Pakistan and has allowed
As for India, it has genuine fears about the return of the Taliban to power. Given its strong commitment to Jihad and also given its alliance with Pakistan, the Taliban could promote terrorism in Kashmir despite assurances to the contrary. Given India’s standoffish attitude to it, the Taliban could threaten Indian establishments and personnel in Afghanistan.
India has been completely dependent on the US military presence for its protection in Afghanistan. In this context, US withdrawal would be the last thing India would want.
However, New Delhi has been seeking an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled” peace process and settlement. What emerges finally may not answer to New Delhi’s description of an ideal Afghan settlement. It will reflect the ground realities. It is time New Delhi realised that the ground realities can be shaped to meet its needs only if it actively participates in the ongoing peace process.