india's narrative faces trouble in afghanistan

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India-Afghan Friendship Dam, formerly Salma Dam, is a hydroelectric and irrigation dam project located on the Hari River in Chishti Sharif District of Herat Province

New Delhi’s long-endorsed ‘no good terrorist, bad terrorist’ line of thinking is making it lose political traction

by Kabir Taneja

The Donald Trump administration has over the past few months seemingly started to work in a steadfast manner to come to some sort of a conclusion in Afghanistan—America’s longest running war, now in its 17th year. Trump is going to be the third US president to attempt to put an end to the American military’s quagmire in the country it entered after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

There is a palpable fear among diplomats in New Delhi and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) capitals that Trump may suddenly decide to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and they might learn about this from his Twitter timeline. India, one of the most important stakeholders in the country, has little influence over Kabul’s future trajectory as far as security goes; much of it lies with Washington.

Over the past few months, there have been reports of various efforts being made to court the Taliban into some sort of negotiation. Processes have been placed to initiate talks with the Taliban using the terror group’s Doha office, facilitated by the Qatar government, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also extending a hand with an orchestrated ceasefire a few weeks ago that saw, for the first time since 2002, Taliban fighters returning to Kabul carrying white flags.

Beyond the US and Nato, even China has moved in, with reports suggesting that a concrete push, brokered by Pakistan, has been initiated by Beijing to engage with the Taliban. This is likely to bolster the Taliban, while putting both Washington and Kabul at a disadvantage.

Such outreach by global powers and Afghanistan’s seemingly unrepairable political mess leave New Delhi in a conundrum. While India has been a steadfast partner in Afghanistan’s post-Taliban redevelopment, it seems largely absent, at least in public discourse, in any concrete approach to court the Taliban into result-oriented discussions with Kabul and bring hostilities to a stop. Repeated reports from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (Sigar) highlight the Taliban’s strong control over large swathes of territory in the country, often seemingly more than the government itself. In fact, the Sigar report from July called Ghani’s government “largely lawless, weak and dysfunctional”.

For India, the predicament of these Afghan-Taliban talks has both domestic and strategic problems. Afghanistan is possibly India’s only, by definition, assertive foreign policy initiative. New Delhi’s long-endorsed “no good terrorist, bad terrorist” line of thinking is, oddly, making it lose political traction in what could be some kind of compromise with the Taliban. While these attempts are not new, and in the past have been futile, with some analysts suggesting that the Taliban’s Qatar office uses these talks only to scuttle them as strategy, lack of direct Indian representation is a glaring anomaly when seen against the backdrop of every other diplomatic and strategic milestone New Delhi has achieved with Kabul. Even on Ghani’s ceasefire effort with the Taliban, New Delhi’s response was tired, meek and repetitive, with the reiteration of India’s stand for an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace process, a call reciprocated by both the US and China, which are simultaneously engaging with the Taliban.

Along with fears of a premature and abrupt US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, India will also have to do a tightrope walk if it allows itself to be seen directly or indirectly negotiating with the Taliban. This will open a Pandora’s Box on the domestic front over its policies on negotiating with terror groups, specifically in Kashmir. Questions could be raised that if India is ready to entertain the idea of direct talks with the Taliban like China, the US and so on, why should it not endorse the same strategy in its domestic conflicts? Would it do the same with jihadist groups in the Valley?

However, the other side of the predicament is that if, in the near future, a deal is facilitated by either the US or China, the Indian policy of marketing itself in Afghanistan as an agent for development and not another foreign interventionist power could get short-changed. This is especially a possibility if any sort of power-sharing deal or political representation for the Taliban is entered into, changing the political geography of Kabul.

In April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had agreed to join hands on commercial projects in Afghanistan. However, analysts suggesting a joint China-India effort are not just overplaying the commonalities of New Delhi’s and Beijing’s interests in Afghanistan, but also underestimating Chinese pragmatism when it comes to their foreign policy objectives, as to why Xi would require India to partner in a channel to the Taliban—one which Beijing already established two years ago. Despite India’s immense goodwill among the Afghan people, including perhaps within the Taliban, such soft- power-driven strategy will have limitations to what New Delhi can achieve diplomatically in a potential Afghan settlement today.

With an increasing sense of disenchantment over repeated failures in Afghanistan, the US seems more desperate than ever to put an end to its engagement in the country, even if it is destined to go down as a defeat. A hasty normalisation of the Taliban into Afghan polity could leave New Delhi as a spectator in the visitors’ lounge to a political show in the Afghan parliament, a theatre it helped build and paid for.

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