President Donald Trump’s decision to reduce US forces from Afghanistan from 14,000 to 7,000 was seen as the beginning of the end-game in Afghanistan. Since then, there have been two rounds of talks between US representative Zalmay Khalilzad and Talibanin December and January. Earlier, Moscow hosted a meeting of representatives of Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran with Taliban on November 9. The two competing processes, led by the US and Russia respectively, have only increased Taliban’s negotiating leverage. After the last round of US-Taliban talks, the two sides indicated progress on two issues: preventing use of Afghan territory by international terrorist groups and US withdrawal. The other issues – intra-Afghan dialogue and ceasefire – are yet to be discussed. The sequence is important. Intra-Afghan dialogue, which should have been the priority in an ‘Afghan owned, and Afghan led dialogue’, has been relegated to future rounds of talks. The US offer of withdrawal is a tangible concession; Taliban’s offer to forsake terrorism is a promissory note. There is certainly no commitment on terror groups which affect India. Sanitizing Afghanistan is not enough; the root of the problem is Pakistan, which must be addressed.
The normal paradigm of conflict resolution is ceasefire, disarmament, constitution making and election. Power sharing comes at the end of the process. Taliban has not accepted ceasefire. They have neither agreed to an Afghan constitution, nor spelt out their vision of Afghanistan’s future. The second round of talks between Khalilzad and Taliban opened in Qatar on January 21, hours after the Wardak attack in which more than 100 Afghan security force members were killed. The incident showed talks have only emboldened Taliban to step up violence to set their terms, rather than bringing peace closer.
Taliban’s strength on the ground does not justify sweeping concessions. According to the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), the Afghan government controls 219 districts and 63% of the population, while Taliban controls 50 districts and 10.8% of the population. Taliban has not been able to hold territory. In a testimony to the US Senate on January 29, director of national intelligence Dan Coates gave his assessment that neither the Afghan government nor Taliban will be able to gain a strategic advantage in the Afghan war in the coming year, at current force levels. The present situation is a stalemate, not overwhelming Taliban advantage. Coates also cautioned against continued attacks by Pakistan supported militant groups “in neighbouring countries, and possibly beyond”.
Current negotiations not only weaken the Ghani government, but also ignore the opposition who have accepted the Afghan constitution and the democratic process. What has brought this extraordinary convergence in the approach of Americans and Russians are clashing motives. The Americans want to bring to a close the war of attrition. On the other hand, the Russians want to add cost to the American calculus. This coalition is likely to fall apart once America withdraws.
If the rationale for flirting with Taliban is that they represent ‘jihad in one country’, their past record belies this expectation. Taliban refused to sever links with al-Qaida during or after the US campaign in 2001. What are India’s options? Is Taliban today different from those who provided sanctuary to IC 814 hijackers in December 1999? Taliban was created by Pakistan and will continue to depend upon it for support. Will a seat on the negotiating table for India be a major gain? Not if our role is simply to endorse a regime created by Pakistan.
Taliban takeover in Kabul will be a prelude to further radicalization of Pakistan and unleashing ٱihadis in Kashmir. India needs to strengthen the Afghan government’s resolve. Afghan army together with an elected government enjoying people’s mandate could provide a viable alternative to Islamabad’s proxy government in Kabul. Instead of a $12 billion bailout to Pakistan as the price of safe American exit, the money could be better spent in sustaining Afghanistan. We need to remain engaged with the people of Afghanistan. Our geography does not allow us a choice. We need to accelerate development of Chabahar port for which the US has given an exemption. We also need to hold discussions bilaterally with the Afghan government as well as the US, Russia and Iran.