An article in ‘The Hill’ of 28th Nov stated that the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is moving at a rapid pace interacting with as many top Taliban officials as he can,attempting to start peace talks before President Trump orders a troop pull-out without an end to the conflict. It also stated that the Khalilzad was testing all channels.Khalilzad has been meeting groups of Taliban representatives including former Guantanamo bay prisoners seeking a breakthrough. ‘The Hill’ obtained this information from serving and retired US diplomats.
Inputs from the US continue to indicate that President Trump has made clear his frustration with the US military mission in Afghanistan and in a recent interview with the Washington Post floated the idea of removing troops from the Middle East and Afghanistan. It is assumed, within the US strategic community’ that Trump will pull troops out of the country before the 2020 Presidential elections.
To force the Taliban onto the negotiating table the Trump administration has also undertaken a major bombing campaign. In the current year, as per data upto 30th Sep, the US had dropped a total of 5,200 bombs, a record thus far. However, it has not achieved the desired results. In some instances, it has alienated the local population as strikes have hit civilian targets.
The US administration, aware that the Taliban is based in Pak and controlled by their ISI has also been applying pressure on Pak to compel them to move into negotiations. The US is seeking to bring the Taliban into the mainstream in a power sharing mode. Other than declaring Pak as a state sponsor of terror, it has applied every other form of pressure. This application of pressure has been led by Trump himself.
The Taliban on the other hand has been slow to come to the table to end the war, which has been ongoing for 17 years. They are aware that they cannot be easily dislodged and that the US is under pressure to pull out. They also rejected a US peace deal which would set Apr 2019 as the deadline to end the war. It has in the meanwhile ramped up its suicide and military attacks on Afghan forces. Its recent incidents have resulted in casualties to US soldiers, adding pressure on Trump.
The Afghan Government has in the meantime, based on discussions with Khalilzad, nominated a negotiating team for discussions with the Taliban in case they accept negotiations. The team comprises of 12 members. President Ghani has also laid out a ‘roadmap’ for the talks and the four principles which would form the basis of any future agreement.
The European Union has announced that it is prepared to act as ‘guarantor’ for the talks. Ghani stated that it is ‘not a question of if, but when an agreement would be reached with the Taliban’. Khalilzad on the other hand stated that he is ‘cautiously optimistic’ for an end to the conflict.
Pak was forced to release a few members of the Taliban, in their custody, to facilitate talks. Russia led peace talks took place recently in Moscow, where India too had sent its representatives. The Indian members alongside the US did not participate in discussions but remainedmute spectators. Afghan representatives were from their peace council. Thus, it appears that almost all powers and countries in the vicinity are now seeking peace in Afghanistan. The future scenario of Afghanistan remains as blurred as ever.
The rise of the ISIS prompted neighbouring powers including China and Russia into supporting the Taliban. For Pak, the Taliban in the driving seat in Afghanistan could be a benefit as it hopes to witness the end of Indian involvement in the country. It could also lead to a reduction in threat of the ISIS on their western borders, as the Taliban considers the ISIS as an enemy. The Taliban to some extent appears to have lost the trust of the Pak government and begun taking independent decisions. The leader of the Taliban’s Qatar office, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, is a product of the Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun. There is another school of thought which envisages that the US may continue with its presence in the country in specific bases, despite pulling out of combat operations. This would be to ensure that its influence in Central Asia remains, thus keeping Russia and China at bay. With this step and an agreement with the Taliban, US presence may be a sobering effect. However, such a situation may be unlikely.
The Taliban are not in line with US presence in the country as their first demand is the pull out of all foreign troops from their soil. The international community still hesitates to trust the Taliban and its strong religious polices as was witnessed during their earlier rule, when they imposed restrictions on women and enforced Sharia law.
Thus, the future could either be an agreement with the Taliban for power or splitting control over the country or a US pull-out from Afghanistan leaving the country in the throes of war, leading to an Afghanistan of the pre-2001 era. In either case, it could impact Indian investments and participation in the development of Afghanistan. India has thus far avoided being involved in talks with the Taliban. It participated reluctantly in the recent Russia led talks.
India has always considered the Taliban as a Pak entity and fears the Taliban movement gaining supporters in Kashmir, in case they regain Afghanistan. The Taliban is now aware that it can no longer lead the country into pre-historic times and must move forward toward development. This would open doors for India, as they would need Indian funds, more so as Chabahar grows and provides it an access to the outside world,rather than only depending on Karachi.
For such a scenario to develop, active Indian interaction with the Taliban must continue. Its participation in all discussions, whenever held and under any aegis, must be ensured. It should continue to project its neutral and supportive role for the country at large, despite any Government being in power. As the internal dynamics of Afghanistan change, so should the Indian outlook. It can no longer be firm and rigid but move with changing scenarios.Only then would it be able to retain its present status in the country and dislodge Pak influence.It would also prevent Taliban fighters being diverted to Kashmir by a desperate Pak, who now sees itself losing the Kashmir battle.
(The author is former Major General)