By Amitava Mukherjee
There is uncomfortable news for India from Afghanistan. As the peace process picks up momentum there, anxiety is sure to grip the policy makers in New Delhi as India seems to be edged out from the fast changing Afghan scenario although the country has very high stakes in developments there. A peaceful and democratic Afghanistan is also necessary for the Jammu and Kashmir to remain calm and stable. But Pakistan has already managed to get a strategic depth in Afghan affairs courtesy the United States, Russia and China while India has been, at least for the time being, left behind.
Now the issue has narrowed down to two aspects- an agreement with the Taliban thereby ensuring the withdrawal of the US/ NATO forces and the fate of the Ashraf Ghani government. The unfolding scenario bears some, not all, similarity with the last days of the Soviet backed Najibullah government when a totally fatigued Moscow had decided to leave Afghanistan bag and baggage leaving Najibullah, the then President at Kabul, to fend for himself. But for Ashraf Ghani the situation is not so hopeless. He has on his side a good part of the international community. He has at his disposal an army, howsoever weak it may be and he still controls nearly 50 percent of Afghanistan
Ghani must be aware of the fact that as the primaries for the next year’s US presidential election draw closer – scheduled to start from the beginning of 2020, Donald Trump will be doubly eager to live up to his election promise of withdrawing totally from Afghanistan. This is a thing they did first in Iraq and then in Syria, leaving their own regional proxies in the lurch. Washington’s intention of leaving Afghanistan as soon as possible has raised similar apprehensions. Will Afghanistan again go back to the ‘ dark ages’ which the Taliban had let loose from 1996-2001? What will be the fate of the Ashraf Ghani government? Or Will the Taliban be able to bring the whole country under one umbrella when the country is practically bundled out into several areas of influence?
So a total take over by the Taliban is not possible as the country is divided into ethnic lines with the Pashtu dominated Taliban controlling large parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan while other ethnic groups like the Uzbeks, the Tajiks and the Hazara Shias holding sways over northern and western parts of the country. However, although Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative on Afghan affairs, has been speaking of an “ all-Afghan” follow up initiative to give the US/NATO withdrawal an orderly character, designed to hand over powers to Afghan representatives yet an assumption has been gaining ground that it is nothing but an attempt to enthrone the Taliban in Kabul with Pakistani backing.
In this circumstance the statement by John Bass, the US ambassador in Afghanistan, that the Afghan presidential election might be postponed; has aroused strong suspicion in India. Ashraf Ghani, the incumbent president enjoying a good equation with New Delhi, is a clear favourite to win the husting . As the US officials are speaking of “future political arrangements’ in the same breadth, any postponement of the election may result in installation of an interim government with which India may not enjoy any leverage at all.
Therefore Ajit Doval, India’s National Security Advisor, strongly conveyed India’s reservations about such an arrangement to Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, when the latter had visited New Delhi recently. But New Delhi has committed quite a few mistakes in matters of its Afghanistan policy. While the Pakistan-Taliban axis centred mainly on military aspects, India refused to give any worthwhile military help to Hamid Karzai, a former Afghan President, when the latter had sought such helps from India. So far New Delhi has committed itself to giving only developmental aid amounting to USD 3 billion but has not sufficiently cultivated former mujahideen warlords like Mohammed Mohaqiq, Atta Mohammed Noor, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Fahim who represent several ethnic minorities of Afghanistan and are largely anti-Taliban.
Russia’s support is crucial for India in Afghan affairs and it is hoped that Moscow’s cold shoulders to India in recent months is more tactical than real. In February last Moscow had convened an all-Afghan meeting where not only the Taliban but most of the former mujahideen warlords participated. India was not a party in it.But it is relevant that New Delhi still enjoys some tenuous strategic relationships with the warlords without whose cooperation no peace process in Afghanistan can be successful. The second one happened in May last when several political groups opposed to Ashraf Ghani met Taliban representatives in Moscow. Ultimately the US, Russia, China and Pakistan met in Beijing last month. Here India’s participation could have been meaningful. But New Delhi’s presence was shunned.
The news is now in the air that the US and the Taliban are very near to reaching an agreement whose tenor indicate that the right nomenclature for it should be an “ withdrawal agreement” rather than a “ peace agreement”. The only worthwhile point that the Taliban has conceded is that it would not allow any terrorist organization like the Al-Qaeda or the ISIS set their feet on the area it controls. However on the other most important point- direct negotiation with the Ashraf Ghani government – the Taliban still remains non committal. The Taliban knows that the key to Afghanistan is in its hands and it can control, twist and direct the “ peace negotiation” according to its will.
That is why it did not permit any official Afghan government participation in the all-Afghan meeting hosted by Russia in February last. Participation from the Ashraf Ghani government was allowed only on individual identities. The coming days are likely to witness further strengthening of Taliban hands because its comrade-in-arms Pakistan, by virtue of playing its cards deftly, has gained recognition from the US and Russia as one of the stake holders in the ongoing Afghan imbroglio. Islamabad’s trump card was Abdul Ghani Baradar, the second-in-command of the Taliban. Utilizing its influence on Baradar Pakistan coaxed and cajoled the Taliban to participate in the talks and for ensuring Baradar’s presence at the negotiating table the Imran Khan government cleverly bypassed the UN restrictions on Baradar’s travels and managed to airlift him to Qatar where series of talks between Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban have been taking place.
On Afghanistan Russia wants to keep the Taliban and Pakistan in good humour in order to prevent any intrusion of Islamic fundamentalism in the Central Asian states. Therefore it took a strange stand when New Delhi scored a comprehensive victory over Pakistan in the United Nations Security Council over the Kashmir issue last week. Here the Russian representative admitted that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan but at the same time gave an unwanted twist to it by asking the two sides to settle the dispute in accordance with the United Nations Charter and resolutions.
Gaining a strategic depth in Afghanistan is a must for India. But for the policy makers in New Delhi it will be a tough job to figure out how to create a space in this difficult scenario.
(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).