All indicators prove that the Afghan peace talks are heading downhill. Every player in the game is seeking goals, different from where they commenced, countering those of the other. The US Special Representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is demanding a ceasefire from the Taliban, prior to further discussion on firm dates of withdrawal. He hopes to bring the Afghan government and the Taliban on the same table which has been refused by the Taliban. Multiple rounds of talks have been bogged down without any forward movement.
The Taliban on the other hand, aware of US desperation to withdraw, are unwilling to discuss a ceasefire, till the US announces its dates of withdrawal, exactly the opposite of US views. It is unwilling to talk to the present Afghan government, as it considers them a puppet of the West, again contrary to US demands.
It justifies the same by stating that discussing with the government implies accepting that they are a terrorist group. It hopes that the US withdraws and hands over the nation to them on a platter, which till then should be run by an interim government of their choice. Hence, its first firm demand is finalization of dates of withdrawal.
The Ashraf Ghani led Afghan government is internally fractured. There is intense rivalry between him and Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive of the country. Ghani recently organized a Loya Jirga, a grand assembly, which brought together more than 3200 participants, politicians, tribal elders and other prominent figures. The aim was to indicate the support he has within the nation to both the US and the Taliban.
The Loya Jirga gave a call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire by the Taliban as also demanded the release of the 175 Taliban prisoners held by the government. It also produced a 23-point list for peace talks with the Taliban. An important aspect was that it desired that 50 of its members be included in talks with the Taliban. The Jirga showcased that the present government continues to possess some internal standing. It was however boycotted by Abdullah Abdullah. Post the Jirga, Ghani announced to the Taliban, ‘Afghans want peace. The choice is now in your hands.’
The Afghan presidential elections are being postponed as to not become another factor in talks. This is also enhancing internal dissent.
Pakistan, which has claimed to be the initiator of talks between the US and the Taliban has been changing its stance. Imran initially announced a meeting with the Taliban, which was cancelled post objections by Afghanistan. It initially participated in the talks in Doha, but subsequently withdrew.
Based on the recommendations of the Taliban, Imran had suggested the establishment of an interim government in Kabul, while talks were in progress. He faced international flak. Kabul even withdrew its ambassador from Islamabad in anger. In recent statements, Pak states that it supports peace but is neutral in the progress of talks.
Other international powers, mainly Russia and China are supportive of the Taliban as they remain more concerned about the growing presence of the ISIS (termed the IS-K) in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban has declared war on the IS-K, these nations support it and are in contact with it.They claim that the US is permitting the growth of the IS-K, while the US claims that Russia and China are arming the Taliban.
To add to divergent views is the lack of trust of each entity involved in the talks. The US have limited trust on the Taliban and there is a belief within US security circles that the Taliban may renege on its promises. The Taliban too believe that the US may not adhere to their dates of withdrawal once they agree to a ceasefire. The Afghan government and public, based on the earlier approach of the Taliban, are unwilling to trust it to its word of not pushing the nation back into stone age. The present Afghan government is unwilling to share power with the Taliban and the Taliban with them.
Thus, talks are bogged down, unlikely to give any positive result, while Taliban offensives continues unabated. There are daily reports of Taliban attacks in the country. With summers approaching, Kabul would face more direct assaults. As US elections draw close, the belief that Trump would announce a unilateral withdrawal order is increasing. The US is realizing that it is in a war which it cannot win. It may not even be able to maintain the areas presently under the control of the Afghan government.
In this confusion, Afghanistan may end up in a civil war, which will be fought with the Afghan army on one side and the Taliban backed by the Pak army on the other. India, which has been the major contributor to development in the country would be impacted. Its efforts of developing Chabahar as a trade route to Central Asia through Afghanistan is dependent on peace within the country, which presently appears to allude.
With the destruction of the JeM training facility in Balakote, Pak is seeking to establish fresh facilities in greater depth close to the Afghan border and creating a new group in lieu of the JeM which has been banned. Further, there are reports of Pak now seeking to recruit Taliban fighters for Kashmir, which can only be offset if India is in direct contact with the Taliban leadership.
India therefore needs to get its act together, seek a way of pushing itself into contact with the Taliban. It needs to ensure that its efforts at developing the country and building Chabahar will not be impacted, despite any government coming to power. It can neither depend on the US or the Afghan government alone for surety. It would need direct contact with the Taliban.
Pak would attempt to scuttle all Indian efforts. It would not desire any Indian presence in Afghanistan. This roadblock will have to be overcome.
The new government which comes to power post 23rd May would have to handle Afghanistan and the Taliban on priority. It cannot be sitting on the ringside, hoping to get inputs from the US or the Afghan government and then acting. It needs to be proactive and seek its own levels of interactions for ensuring security of its assets in the country. It need not take sides in the conflict nor should it remain a bystander. It must be an active participant.
(The author is Major General (retd)