Can India change Taliban mindset for lasting amity in Central Asia?
It’s now or never with China closely on heels
Afghanistan is definitely at the crossroads, especially after the pull-out of the American and western military forces that had been stationed to monitor an everlasting peace process. With the role of Taliban playing a crucial factor in the future of Afghanistan, there certainly is an air of uncertainty in this “Heart of Asia”, which has the potential to harness and stimulate commerce between the five Central Asian states. The pull-out of the foreign troops has resulted in heart-rendering cries for lasting peace even as the warring nature of hinterland politics and intrusive external interferences are leaving unmistakable bruises on the socio-economic, political and ragged geographical landscape.
Afghanistan is located in Central Asia with Iran to the west and Pakistan to the east. Tall, forbidding mountainsand dry deserts cover most of the landscape of Afghanistan. The jagged mountain peaks are treacherous, and are snow covered for most of the year. Two days ago, Afghan Information and Culture Minister Qasim Wafaeezada warned that trafficking in ancient cultural sites, especially under Taliban influence in Kandahar, Samangan and Balkh, had begun. The stunning blue-tile Abu Nasr Parsa mosque in Balkh, built in 1598 in memory of a saint of the Naqshbandi order, he said, has already been partially damaged.
These lamentations have come in the wake of a busy week in Afghanistan. It seems like a see-saw of claims and reverses on the battlefield, Afghan security forces have retaken districts in Kandahar, Parwan and Ghazni, killing 967 Taliban militants in the bargain. But Chakhansur District in Nimroz has fallen again to the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Afghan Minister also accused the Pakistani establishment of sending “10,000 Taliban” fighters over the border to fight against Afghan forces, President Ashraf Ghani has recalled the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Najibullah Alikhil, over the kidnapping and torture of his daughter in Islamabad.
High stake game?
The manner in which the big powers and neighbours are trying to set the stage is akin to players fighting out a game on a chess board! Afghanistan is a very interesting geo-political nation – each country wants a slice of the Afghan naan so that they can continue to assert influence. The US troop withdrawal is fully on schedule and yet the country has partnered with Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to promote economic activity that would connect land-locked Central Asia to the Arabian Sea; the US has also promised $ 3.3 billion annually to help the Afghan defence forces fight the Taliban.
Americans would know better than to partner with Pakistan, a nation which has not only undermined its Afghan effort for 20 years, but is bound to leverage its close relationship with China to expand influence in a post-US Afghanistan. The American political shenanigans are indeed intriguing – on the one hand it praises India’s role in QUAD, the four-nation alliance comprising US, India, Japan and Australia, which has been formed to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region but at the same time partners with Pakistan on the Afghanistan issue. In fact, Pakistan and China have been all weather friends and have their own axis to grind on the Afghanistan issue. Only time will tell if the Americans are playing one nation against the other in a bid to get a stronger toehold as a global super power.
Adding to the chess board quagmire is the Russian quotient in the Afghanistan issue. The present Russian independent entity belonged the erstwhile Soviet Union, whose disintegration in 1991 has been directly linked to its Afghan escapade during the 1979-89 period. Now Russian President Vladimir Putin is offering his US counterpart the use of Russian bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. President Joe Biden may even be tempted to accept the Russian roulette as Pakistan has refused to give access to its bases, and Iran will surely rebuff any overtures from the US. Qatar is too far and an aircraft carrier in the Gulf is still eight hours away from point zero in Afghan!
Under the circumstances, India’s role in Afghanistan comes under microscopic purview. India and Afghanistan have a strong relationship based on historical and cultural links. India has been, and continues to be, a steadfast partner in the reconstruction and development efforts in Afghanistan. While India has strongly supported QUAD, it also has a historical relationship with Russia dating back to the days of the erstwhile Soviet Union era. The earlier 1996 India-Iran-Russia effort to contain the Taliban militancy cannot be replicated now in 2021, as both US and Russia have their own vested interests and so does Iran. The US-Iran relationship isn’t getting any better while India and Iran hardly have the potential to do anything substantial for now.
And in this game of Chinese Chequers, the US and Russia prefer Pakistan as it is more geo-strategically placed to handle any Afghan issue. This means India will be left in the limbo on a crucial international issue. Pakistan’s borders are much closer to Afghanistan while India shares no border territory with Afghanistan. The recent developments are sure to hurt India as the country has been investing heavily in Afghanistan projects and rehabilitation programmes to help the Afghan population to stand on their own two feet. But will this be a distant dream or a tangible target, is indeed the moot question? While India cannot underestimate the power of the Taliban at the same time it cannot voice an open support to the movement – obviously because of its perceived terrorist links as well as proximity to the Pakistan Army. The fact that the Taliban has withstood the onslaught of the American forces for more than two decades and in some ways played a role in ensuring the American troops are pulled out of their lands.
The crucial Taliban factor
With the Taliban emerging as a strong force in 1996 when it took over power in Kabul within two years of its formation in 1994, global nations realised the significance of bringing the outfit to the table for talks. Post the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks in the US, the Taliban was decimated but revived as an insurgent fore in 2003. The idea of negotiating with Taliban was first mooted in 2007-2008 in London. Though an action plan was formalised in January 2010, it did not materialise resulting in a failed first attempt. undeterred the Americans tried to directly reach out to the Taliban in 2012-2013 much against the wishes of then Afghan Government under President Karzai. There has been a history of failure to reach a political solution on the conflicting role of Taliban in the governance of Afghanistan. The fact that the Americans and the Taliban have reached out to each other is a success unto itself, even though it might not lead to serious conflict resolution or ensure a lasting peace process in Afghanistan. Today, the global effort is to bring the Taliban and the Afghanistan Government to the negotiating table and sign a peace accord that would clearly demarcate their roles in the governance of the country. This clause is also enshrined in the agreement signed between Afghanistan and Americans resulting in the gradual exit of the US forces.
This first round of negotiations, or the intra-Afghanistan talks, were held in Doha recently with multiple nations attending the talks. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar virtually represented India on the peace talks process and said that India was committed to a country that is “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled.” India had also attended the signing of the US-Taliban agreement in February. Now this raises the question of whether Taliban will try to reach out to India? Let us not forget that Taliban doesn’t want to be perceived as a Pakistan proxy force. This aspect is important for any Afghan leader to survive in the long run. The new forces that are keen to take control of Afghanistan in the near future will surely have people’s interests in their mind. That ideology will cut ice with global communities and UN in particular.
Thus ensuring a strong relationship with India will make sense as it is a viable alternative for any dispensation that may rule Afghanistan! But it will also means that in the future Afghanistan will have to stand up to Pakistan which will fear India’s growing clout in their neighbour’s soil! Some hints are there in the diplomatic circles that Taliban is keen to hold peace talks with the Kabul government on a neutral venue as early as possible. India could thus set the ball rolling as a neutral venue and use the opportunity to find ways and means to overcome some of its own historical inhibitions and the unusually heavy baggage of weight on its head, and open a formal official conversation with Taliban. We should also remember such processes will not bear fruits overnight but can help break down walls that separate us. It’s going to be a long-drawn process of confidence-building and letting loose our fears and apprehensions.