In recent months, US President Donald J. Trump has expressed his desire to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, saying in Aug 2019 that he wants to do so “as quickly as we can.” U.S. commander in Afghanistan stated in October 2019 that the United States has gradually been reducing the number of troops in the country in 2019, and the Pentagon reportedly maintains contingency plans to execute a withdrawal of all U.S, forces should the US president decide to issue such an order.
Engaging with Taliban: A Sound Policy?
Alongside the military campaign, United States was engaged in a diplomatic effort to end the war through direct talks with Taliban representatives, albeit a reversal of previous U.S. policy. A draft framework, in which the Taliban would agree to prohibit terrorist groups from operating on Afghan soil in return for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces, was reached between U.S. and Taliban negotiators in Jan 2019, and talks appeared close to concluding. However, on Sep 7 this year, Trump announced that those talks had been called off. Afghan government representatives were not directly involved in U.S.-Taliban talks, leading some Afghans to worry that the United States would prioritize a military withdrawal over a complex political settlement that shall leave little of the social, political, and humanitarian gains made since 2001.
It is less clear what specific concessions the Taliban would make in return. As part of the tentative deal, U.S. officials anticipated the Taliban to enter direct negotiations with the Afghan government after a U.S. withdrawal begins, however, Taliban have not publicly reversed their long-standing refusal to negotiate with Kabul. U.S. arguably will have little leverage to compel them to do so once a U.S. withdrawal takes place
Afghan President Ghani has promised that his government will not accept any settlement that limits Afghans’ rights. In a Jan 2019 address, he further warned that any agreement to withdraw U.S. forces that did not include Kabul’s participation could lead to “catastrophe,” pointing to the 1990s-era civil strife following the fall of the Soviet-backed Najibullah government that led to the rise of the Taliban. Going forward, it remains unclear what kind of political arrangement could satisfy both Kabul and the Taliban to the extent that the latter abandon its armed struggle. That is unlikely to be. Taliban have given contradictory signs, with one spokesman saying that the group is “not seeking a monopoly on power,” and another in May speaking of the group’s “determination to reestablish the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan.” Still Afghans, who remember Taliban rule and oppose the group’s policies and beliefs remain wary, and for good reasons the world knows to be true.
Afghan Politico-Military Situation and Indian Milieu
The unsettled state of Afghan politics is a major complicating factor for potential negotiations. Historic political fragmentation in Afghan society along ethnic lines have long existed in Afghanistan but were relatively muted during Hamid Karzai’s presidency. These divisions are sometimes seen as a driving force behind some of the political upheavals that have challenged Ghani’s government, and they are here to stay.
An interesting fallout of rise of Taliban Post 2016 and weakening of hold of Afghanistan Army in fringe provinces, is the rise of Local Tribal Militia. These have been found to be an effective deterrence while being pro-government and in close political and military support to the US-Afghanistan forces.
India is concerned that a return to power by the Taliban will undermine the fragile government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani which is struggling to provide basic governance and security to the Afghan people as it continues to battle the Taliban for its very existence. However, the current state of Afghanistan’s political landscape is composed of Regional/tribal nodules. Hasn’t every nation evolved from a similar chaotic history, gradually all factions coming on the same platform using aspects of education, policy-based governance, and a surviving economy. India is one of them. Important facet of this is that these regional entities needs to be credible, genuine and inclusive of its own minorities: be it religious or ethnic. Taliban, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP, also known as ISIS-K) and leftovers or Al Qaeda are not one of them in their current form.
However regional tribal militia have in past one and half years have seen to be having effective neighborhood cooperation and effectively repulsing Taliban. This has a strong leanings towards blooming into regional Cooperation and if not too ambitious to say, a regional identity. This appears a viable way forward.
Former diplomat and secretary to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs Vivek Katju known for his hardliner stance against the Taliban has adopted a somewhat different take on the Taliban issue. Katju argued that it is in India’s strategic interests to engage with the Taliban to not only maintain its influence in Afghanistan but to better understand the power dynamics of the broader South Asian region.
India’s first moral necessity is that “all initiatives and processes must include all sections of the Afghan society, including the legitimately elected government.” Historically, the Afghan government has often been sidelined by international interlocutors in their engagements with the Taliban. Furthermore, this expectation indicates a degree of acceptability in Delhi over negotiating with the Taliban, as the group represents a “section of the Afghan society.”
India’s second necessity is that “any process should respect the constitutional legacy and political mandate,” meaning that democratic processes and human rights—including women’s rights—should be respected.
Thirdly, India expects that any process “should not lead to any ungoverned spaces where terrorists and their proxies can relocate.” This expectation is crucial for India, as it highlights the threat posed by terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network, Al Qaeda, and Islamic State. Furthermore, strictly in India’s context, this expectation implies that Pakistan-based terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, and Jaish-e-Mohammed cannot be permitted to expand their operations into Afghanistan.
Above is all contrary to Pakistan’s designs and thereby contrarily to present-day Taliban. US shall have to delve into this mudslide again after half a decade, should it allows Pakistan-Taliban designs in the region. China however also does not patronizes Pakistan-Taliban narrative, which it understands shall surely lead to the region falling into the 1990s chaos. This is given Uighur’s situation on brink of exploding in the geo-ethnic domain, as well as this outcome, jeopardizing its infrastructure based interests in the area. Afghanistan definitely cannot let that happen. It is also worth mentioning that the Present-day Taliban understands that it is in no bargaining position, be it organizationally as well as geopolitically, to govern Afghanistan in a manner resembling post-1990s era regime.
With above as the backdrop, there is not much choice, but for the US to stay put in Afghanistan. A symbolic withdrawal shall be there, given US Presidential elections and Trump’s bid for second term in fray, however, American presence will be there. This is required to be used to strengthen the Tribal-Militia intra cooperation framework. India is already placed as the fulcrum to this process, given the impetus and goodwill, it enjoys in the region, both with the government of Afghanistan as well as provincial leadership. This track-II diplomacy and backdoor support to government of Afghanistan shall build the credibility of the Afghan elected government, strengthen the government -tribal interaction, and force all players, to include Afghanistan Government in talks, which never has happened till now.
US government has now no choice but to stay in Afghanistan, till the Tribal Militia-Afghanistan Military Combine is adequately strong enough to contain and to get a bespoke Taliban to table. Taliban has to exists as one of the stakeholders not more, is the minimum requis. Also without a sustainable indigenous economy and financial self-reliance, Afghanistan cannot become a truly sovereign state. Financial dependence and economic vulnerabilities will continue to make Afghanistan and various Tribal-ethnic groups prone to political manipulation and military sabotage by regional players. India shall look forward in this direction to have a bigger role to play, especially in the context of Chabahar Port and connect with Iran.
In a philosophical context, above state of stable existence of various tribal provinces in Afghanistan, within the Afghanistan federal structure, shall give chance for the facet of education, economics, and common governance model. This shall propel Afghanistan to the concept of Nationhood while keeping alive the regional identity. Very Indian and US like model, however, Taliban needs to be coerced to exists as one of the many federal structure components, dwarfed by the tribal-provincial structure’s strength. India cannot afford to remain on the sidelines of the peace process in Afghanistan. The country is an important partner and is of great strategic value for India especially with India’s control over the Iranian port of Chabahar, which has been granted a sanctions waiver by the U.S. government. India must up the ante in Afghanistan by initiating track II diplomacy, engaging with tribal-provincial elders at behest of Afghanistan Government.
16 Nov 19/Saturday Written by Fayaz