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Why Abdullah Abdullah visited Pakistan and India?

TOP NEWS-ENG-03-11-2020-1
Abdullah Abdullah talks with Prime Minister Imran Khan

When Abdullah Abdullah recently visited Pakistan and India, the impression was that he, as the head of the Afghan peace council engaged in talks with the Taliban, was only coordinating developments with both the regional players. But the visit only showed how it was a lot more than ‘peace co-ordination.’ 

Abdullah’s visit to Pakistan, the first of its kind in over a decade, was to impress upon Pakistan to help create a politically balanced system, and not allow a Taliban-dominated system. In India, Abdullah sought New Delhi’s support to balance the Pakistan-backed Taliban. In other words, while the Taliban have Pakistan’s support, the incumbent Afghan elite is trying to build upon its past relations with New Delhi to counter-balance the Pakistan-backed Taliban.

To what extent can the Modi Sarkar help Kabul is questionable. India cannot support Kabul without a strong footing inside Afghanistan. Its ability to influence Afghanistan’s internal politics stands critically diminished due it loss of critical geographic spots in Iran like the Chabahar port. 

If Iran was to be India’s gateway to Afghanistan, this route may no longer be available due to Iran’s increasing disenchantment with India over its cavalier approach to both Chabahar and Farzad-B. India’s loss of Farzad-B, as I wrote last week for SAM, is a major setback, one that would have significant implications far beyond India’s bi-lateral relations with Iran.

It will cripple India’s ability to exert influence in Afghanistan and may even accentuate its dependence on Pakistan for trade with Afghanistan. Already, reports in the Indian media are claiming ‘serious problems’ that Indian trade consignments are facing at the Wagha border. Any aggressive Indian move in Afghanistan will make Islamabad pull its strings on the border.

For Abdullah Abdullah and the rest of the incumbent Afghan rulers, it is crucial that Indian maintains a low profile in Afghanistan until at least a peace agreement is achieved. 

Abdullah’s India visit was, therefore, not to impress upon New Delhi to change its Taliban policy and engage with them, but to maintain a low-profile. Both Kabul and the US (and indeed India as well) know that Pakistan holds the cards in Afghanistan. 

An Indian high-profile involvement in the Afghanistan peace process will create problems for Kabul. While Kabul wants India’s support, it wants it to become a prominent player only in the post-war era to balance ties with Pakistan-Taliban alliance.

For now, Kabul aims to closely liaise with Islamabad and Beijing. It wants to impress upon these countries the need to press the Taliban to come into the peace process, a task that India is least suited to perform. 

For Kabul, the immediate task, realizing that a US withdrawal is inevitable and that in the absence of a peace agreement and a power-sharing formula the Taliban would take over, is to reach a peace-deal with the help of Islamabad and Beijing. As it stands, apart from Islamabad, Beijing is also in direct contact with the Taliban and has offered them an incentive in terms of development assistance and investment in exchange for peace and a promise to not allow Chinese militant groups to operate in Afghan soil. 

Abdullah Abdullah, therefore, wanted to make sure that when a peace-deal is reached between Kabul and the Taliban, New Delhi will play along. 

Indeed, Abdullah confirmed in an interview given during his India visit that the Indian leadership assured him that they will back any settlement acceptable to the Afghan people.

Keeping a low-profile suits India as well. It is evident that apart from Kabul, no other state, including the US, has shown much enthusiasm for a deep Indian involvement in the process. 

Already, Pakistan has started impressing upon the world how an Indian role and presence in Afghanistan will expose it to further machinations by India within Pakistan. While Pakistan has already started fencing its border with Afghanistan, there is no gainsaying that Pakistan continues to strongly resent any Indian involvement in its backyard. 

A strong Pakistani reaction to any Indian involvement will make Pakistan push for a greater Taliban role in the post-war era. It is evident that such a push will further weaken Kabul’s position vis-à-vis the Taliban. Therefore, at this stage of talks, even Kabul cannot afford to lose Pakistan’s goodwill because of Indian involvement in the process. 

Perhaps, Abdullah Abdullah’s message was understood in Delhi, which is why a grand joint communique or a joint statement was not issued after his visit. Instead, Indian ministers confined themselves to Twitter to laud the ‘important discussion’ they had with Abdullah.