Afghan peace and India’s elbow room
Though sidelined from regional discussions on Afghanistan, India must still pursue the ample chances in seeking peace
- In 2020, the reason given for keeping India out of regional discussions on Afghanistan was ostensible that it holds no “boundary” with Afghanistan; but in fact, it is because New Delhi has never announced its support for the U.S.-Taliban peace process.
- After the 2010 conference, New Delhi redoubled its efforts with Kabul, and in 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Afghanistan President Karzai signed the historic Strategic Partnership Agreement, which was Afghanistan’s first such agreement with any country.
New Delhi’s stand
- India’s resistance to publicly talking to the Taliban has made it an awkward interlocutor at any table. Its position that only an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled process can be allowed is a principled one but has no takers.
- Kabul or the Ashraf Ghani government does not lead, own or control the reconciliation process today, comprising the U.S.-Taliban negotiation for an American troops withdrawal, and intra-Afghan talks on power-sharing.
- The U.S.-Taliban peace deal means that the Taliban, which has not let up on violent attacks on the Afghan Army, will become more potent as the U.S. withdraws soldiers from the country, and will hold more sway in the inter-Afghan process as well, as the U.S. withdraws funding for the government in Kabul.
- New Delhi’s decision to put all its eggs in the Ghani basket has had a two-fold effect: its voice in the reconciliation process has been limited, and it has weakened India’s position with other leaders of the deeply divided democratic setup in Kabul such as the former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
- Meanwhile, India’s presence inside Afghanistan, which has been painstakingly built up since 2001, is being threatened anew by terror groups such as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), believed to be backed by Pakistan’s establishment.
What dents India’s goodwill
- The government must also consider the damage done to the vast reservoir of goodwill India enjoys in Afghanistan because of recent events in the country, especially the controversy over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
- The building blocks of that goodwill are India’s assistance in infrastructure projects, health care, education, trade, and food security, and also in the liberal access to Afghans to study, train and work in India.
- New Delhi must move swiftly to regain the upper hand in the narrative in Afghanistan. India’s assistance of more than $3 billion in projects, trade of about $1 billion, a $20 billion projected development expenditure of an alternate route through Chabahar, as well as its support to the Afghan National Army, bureaucrats, doctors, and other professionals for training in India, should assure it a leading position in Afghanistan’s regional formulation.
- Three major projects: the Afghan Parliament, the Zaranj-Delaram Highway, and the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam (Salma Dam), along with hundreds of small development projects (of schools, hospitals, and water projects) have cemented that position in Afghan hearts nationwide, regardless of Pakistan’s attempts to undermine that position, particularly in the South.
- As a result, it would be a mistake, at this point, to tie all India’s support in only to Kabul or the Ghani government; the government must strive to endure that its aid and assistance is broad-based, particularly during the novel coronavirus pandemic to centers outside the capital, even if some lie in areas held by the Taliban.
Making a leap
- India must also pursue opportunities to fulfill its role in the peace efforts in Afghanistan, starting with efforts to bridge the Ghani-Abdullah divide, and bringing together other major leaders with whom India has built ties for decades.
- An understanding between Iran and the U.S. on Afghanistan is necessary for a lasting peace as well, and India could play a mediatory part, as it did in order for the Chabahar project.
- Finally, New Delhi should use the United Nations’ call for a pause in conflicts during the novel coronavirus pandemic, to ensure a hold on hostilities with Pakistan.
- However, if there is one lesson that the U.S.-Taliban talks have imparted, it is that both have found it necessary to come to the table for talks on Afghanistan’s future.
- For India, given its abiding interest in Afghanistan’s success and traditional warmth for its people, making that leap should be a bit easier.
- Above all, the government must consider the appointment of a special envoy, as it has been done in the past, to deal with its efforts in Afghanistan, which need both diplomatic agility and a firmness of purpose at a watershed moment in that country’s history.