By: Jabir Taneja
US Special Representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, made his fifth visit to New Delhi in two years as the critical intra-Afghan negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government began in Qatar. Khalilzad’s visit comes a few days after India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar addressed the opening of the meet via video conferencing, seen as a substantial move away from India’s previous aversions of being on the same table as the Taliban.
As both the Taliban and the Afghan government begin their consultations, they called for patience, as the initial rounds of negotiations on setting agendas, contact groups and so on begins. The talks will be held behind closed doors, and without the attendance of external actors.
Taliban’s Internal Issues
Even within the Taliban, the going has clearly not been easy. Days before the Doha talks were to begin, a major shakeup took place within the group’s 21-member negotiation team as hardline cleric Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai rather unceremoniously replaced Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai as the chief negotiator.
Reports of regional commanders within Taliban opposing any negotiated compromise with the US have been doing rounds for months, and violence against the Afghan government and its institutions has been consistent.
The stakes remain high around the talks, and there are no guarantees whether any success would be achieved or not. The only constant as negotiations begin is an impending US withdrawal and this alone gives the Taliban a better deck of cards to play.
The group has managed to secure the release of over 5,000 of its fighters and members from Afghan prisons, a demand that the government of President Ashraf Ghani has honored at great domestic risk.
Violence: Taliban’s Trump Card
One of the main items on the list is a potential ceasefire, curtailing hostilities to build a better environment for an expected long and arduous negotiations process. While the Taliban has an undeclared pullback on violence against American troops, they continue to orchestrate attacks on the Afghan armed forces. Expectations of a total ceasefire are perhaps misplaced, as it is pivotal to remember that violence is the biggest leverage that the Taliban wields.
As of 2019, reports by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) suggested that the Afghan government had in fact lost further control of Afghan territory to the Taliban. To achieve equity in this domestic battle, violence and insurgency is the Taliban’s trump card.
Where Does India Stand vis a vis Taliban?
Amidst all this, India has often found itself as an outlier as it refused to engage with the Taliban during the foundational times that led to the Doha talks.
Despite EAM Jaishankar’s speech at the inaugural being labelled as India ‘shedding its reluctance’ in engaging with the Taliban, the fact of the matter remains that New Delhi came to the party after all the guests had left.
Like many things in India’s strategic foresight, its childlike idealism of how it views ‘overt involvement’ in other states’ affairs has significantly cost it political space and time in Afghanistan while its neighbor, Pakistan, has made merry of the situation. When Pakistan released Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar from captivity in October 2018, it had placed itself firmly as a premier architect on how a post-US Afghanistan would look, playing on both the US’s exhaustion from the 19-year long war, India’s utter ambivalence over the situation along with its infatuation in protecting its molar high grounds.
The fact that former Pakistan foreign minister Khawaja M Asif tweeted praise for the Taliban as Mullah Baradar met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is an indictment of where Washington’s policies of courtship with Pakistan has finally landed them.
Frankly, India Has Limited Options
The Taliban know that they will ultimately need to compromise in order for the talks to succeed, despite their upper hand. Scholar Kamran Bokhari of the Center for Global Policy offers an interesting hypothesis, that if the talks were to succeed, a future re-shaped Afghan system would be a mashup of a republic with a strong layer of theocracy, similar to Iran. Meanwhile the US has said that the future of the Afghan political system is for the Afghans to make, meaning outright democracy and republic is not the end game.
India’s options are limited. Its support for the government in Kabul, ideations of democracy, human rights and non-violence in Afghanistan are well and good but are rapidly becoming void of ground realities.
From an Indian perspective, the case of Afghanistan and the ongoing intra-Afghan talks should act as a prognosis to what scholar C Raja Mohan correctly points out as the unlikeliness of survival for New Delhi’s framework of non-involvement.