Regaining ground in Afghanistan

Harsha Kakar
The US may deny that Trump has not given any directions for pulling his troops out of Afghanistan, but the writing is on the wall. If Syria, where the US is ditching those who were its front-line soldiers in the battle against the ISIS is any indicator, Afghanistan means far little. The US has gained nothing in Afghanistan, spent billions, lost thousand of lives, killed thousands of innocents and yet failed to bring stability to a country also known as the ‘Graveyard of Empires’. It seeks an honourable withdrawal, provided it can manage it.
The scenario as unfolding presently indicates almost all nations likely to be impacted by the changing situation in the country are engaging with the Taliban. The Taliban have themselves begun to smell blood, despite claims of the US to the contrary.
There was a column in a US online journal, ‘The Hill’, which stated that the US special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is rushing against time to broker peace, before Trump announces a unilateral pull out, throwing the country into chaos.Vice President Mike Pence also stated that partial pull out from Afghanistan is under consideration. Zalmay Khalilzad would be in India this week, to brief the Indian leadership on the progress of US-Taliban talks.
The desperation of the US flows from the fact that they are even willing to offer the Taliban a safety network which includes creating job opportunities for them. This ignores the casualties caused by the same group on the Afghan population and NATO troops.
While the US engages with the Taliban in Qatar and Abu Dhabi, Russia organizes its own talks with them. The Russian led talks did not yield much, though it would continue to engage with them. China is also showing interest and engaging with the Taliban. Both Russia and China have been accused by the US of arming the Taliban. For Russia and China, the growing presence of the ISIS in the country is a bigger threat. They also fear the US may be seeking a permanent base in the country.
Pak finds itself in the limelight and has suddenly discovered that it has some control over the Taliban and can push them for talks. It was a letter from Trump, part of which was released to the public, which galvanised Pak. Till then it always claimed it neither harboured the Taliban, nor had any control over it. Their foreign minister, Mahmood Qureshi, visited Kabul, Tehran, Beijing and Moscow in end Dec, discussing the Afghan peace process and possible threats contained in Trump’s letter.
Qureshi had earlier stated that for peace in Afghanistan, involvement of India was essential, while his foreign office stated that India has no role in the future of Afghanistan.Pak claims to have been behind the US-Taliban talks in Abu Dhabi.
Iran has conducted its own dialogue with the Taliban the focus being ‘post-occupation’ scenario. The Taliban delegation had gone to Tehran for the discussion. No other nation was invited for these talks. Details of the talks have not been released, however inputs indicate that the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister would travel to Afghanistan for further discussions with the Afghan Government. Ironically, the Taliban has been willing to discuss with any nation, other than the Afghan Government. It terms the present Afghan government as a puppet Government of the US.
The Indian stand till date has been that talks with the Taliban should be ‘Afghan-owned and Afghan-led’. While India monitors talks being conducted by different nations and had only sent observers to Moscow for the Russian supported talks, it continues to stick to its stand. Hence, the Indian Government appears to be on the side lines as other nations with an interest in Afghanistan have moved ahead.
It is evident that there is ultimately a desire for peace from all directions. The Taliban have also changed their approach and have realized that they cannot be the same suppressing power as they were earlier. They have witnessed development across the region and would desire the same for the country. The one nation which has invested heavily in the country in economic projects, is India. India is presently the main country which trains the Afghan national army as also provides it with military hardware.
The establishment of the Chabahar port would remove dependence of the country on Pakistan and would open avenues for export through Iran, with whom, despite religious differences, the Taliban appear keen to mend ties.This would severely limit the control Pak would have on the country.
Reports indicate that Afghanistan is rich in minerals, which have yet to be tapped and could form a major revenue earner in the long term. It would again be India which would be the nation it would need to interact with. India therefore can be a major player in the future of Afghanistan, if it desires.
India has always feared that Pak would use the Taliban as a source for terrorists for Kashmir, as most of their fighters are experienced and trained. This can only be offset provided India changes its approach and engages positively with the Taliban.
While Pak has continued to harbour and provide the Taliban with support, the Taliban alone is unlikely to form a Government by itself in the immediate future. Talks, as progressing would indicate a coalition for some time, followed by elections. Neither the Taliban nor the Afghan Government can afford to ignore Indian contribution to the development of the country, despite any Pak claims.
There are also reports that the Taliban does not trust Pak or its ISI to the levels it did earlier. This would need to be exploited.
India therefore needs to begin engaging with the Taliban directly, despite its continued support to the present Afghan Government. It cannot sit idle as other nations engage. It has the leeway and the financial strength to play a major role in the reconstruction of the country, which Pak cannot. It can provide the nation with an alternate route for imports and exports, reducing its dependency on Pak.
While its engagement may be criticized and even attempted to be stymied by Pak, it should bash on with talks. It cannot afford to miss the bus. If India seeks to be a major power in the region, it must change its policies and engage with it.