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Odds remain against India in Afghanistan

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Village elders meeting in Marja, in March 2010. Photo: The New York Times

Despite India’s hurried participation in the recently started intra-Afghan talks, chances are that it will have little or no impact on the final outcome. For one thing, India’s participation comes at a time when its main ally in Afghanistan, the government in Kabul, has already accepted that the Taliban are an inalienable part of any future political set up for the country. 

For most of the time until now, India and the regime in Kabul were united in opposing the Taliban’s return to politics. That Kabul is now engaged in formal talks with the Taliban means that a fundamental shift has taken place in Afghanistan, and India cannot but respond to it positively. It has to make overtures to the Taliban. 

When Zalmay Khalilzad visited India in May to take New Delhi into confidence over the talks, Indian policy makers chose to continue to deny that these talks will bear any result. The Taliban, according to Indian calculations, were too stubborn and battle-hardened to engage in diplomacy and negotiations and that they were only a Pakistani-proxy, having no independent approach. 

The Indian message delivered to the US in May was mainly Pakistan-centric and said that “putting an end to terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries is necessary for enduring and sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

Today, India has realized it was treading a wrong path. From strict non-involvement, it has, out of the fear of becoming a non-entity, already become a ‘determined supporter’ of the peace talks. 

While no material change has taken place in Afghanistan in the past few months as far as the Taliban’s military, political and ideological shift is concerned, and none of India’s demands made in May has been fulfilled, what explains India’s U-turn to support the US-led process is it’s growing need for Washington’s support in the still-evolving tensions with China in Ladakh. 

By becoming a party ‘committed to peace’, India appears to be stamping its regional credentials and making up for its previous role as a spoiler of peace in Afghanistan; for, otherwise, the US-Taliban agreement, which provides the basis for the on-going intra-Afghan talks, remains more favorably disposed to the Taliban than to Kabul, a fact Indian policy makers were previously quick to mention to stay aloof from the process. 

As far as the process is concerned, if India’s position was previously in favor of “an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process for enduring peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan”, the current process, while it is ‘intra-Afghan’, is largely shaped and controlled by the US and Pakistan. 

Consider this: Kabul was made to release Taliban prisoners even though it was not a party to the US-Taliban agreement and was under no legal obligation to release the prisoners, some of whom had serious allegations against them.

When Kabul initially decided to oppose the release of prisoners, the US went to the extent of cutting off aid. Pakistan, on the other hand, engaged in extensive consultations with Kabul, making it realize the inevitability of accepting the Taliban. If the process had really been ‘Afghan controlled’, the real consensus over the question of prisoner release would have been very different. 

But a government, depending almost entirely on the US for military and financial aid, could never have much leeway to chart a truly independent course of action. India’s position was, therefore, always rooted in an unrealistic appreciation of the ground realities and a gross underestimation of Kabul’s leverage over the US. 

The Indian position was also guided by a belief that the war in Afghanistan would not end, or that end was merely President Trump’s delusion. 

As it stands, ending the war in Afghanistan has already become a bipartisan issue in the US. Trump was quite accurate when he recently said that everyone [in the US] was tired of this endless war. A recent poll in the US conducted by Eurasia Group Foundation showed that support for “staying in Afghanistan until the enemies are defeated” considerably reduced between 2019 and 2020, coming down from 30 per cent last year to merely 15 per cent this year.

This is very much consistent with another finding that fewer than 10 per cent of the Americans oppose the US-Taliban agreement. About 66 per cent of Trump supporters support negotiations and an American permanent exit from Afghanistan. About 60 per cent of Biden supporters hold similar views. 

An end of the US’ longest war was, therefore, very much insight when Indian policymakers decided to change their course in Afghanistan. 

However, Indian participation in the process and adopting what a senior Indian official called “an unambiguous position vis-à-vis engagement” will have little or no impact on the outcome. 

The Taliban, who have yet not agreed to do a ceasefire, continue to launch military attacks and bring more and more of Afghan territory under their control, adding directly to their politic-military hold over Afghanistan.