After being ostracised and targeted for the past two decades by the international community led by the United States, the Taliban is back at the negotiating table. It is now undoubtedly the key player in Kabul. The Ashraf Ghani government survives in Kabul only because of American support. The world, except for two prominent stakeholders, has recognised the reality. The two holdouts are India and the Ghani government, who continue to insist that there is no good Taliban and that the peace process should be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.
The major driving force behind the latest round of peace manoeuvres is, of course, US President Donald Trump. Barack Obama had tried his best to nudge the process forward, without much success, but he managed to bring back the bulk of American forces from Afghanistan, leaving just 14,000 of them in the country. Trump, however, plays by a different rulebook and seems to have been convinced about “bringing our great troops back home”. That he is not bluffing is evident from his decision to pull out of Syria, despite objections from key allies like Saudi Arabia and his own defence and state departments.
After several months of backchannel negotiations with the Taliban, Trump sent his special representative Zalmay Khalilzad last month to speak to Taliban representatives based at its political office in Doha. At the end of the six-day talks, the US and the Taliban tentatively agreed on a peace deal. It envisages the Taliban agreeing to a ceasefire and launching direct talks with the government in Kabul. According to Khalilzad, if everything went according to plan, US troops would withdraw from Afghanistan within 18 months. “The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals,” said Khalilzad. “We felt enough confidence that we said we need to get this fleshed out, and details need to be worked out.” He said the possibility of a Taliban role in a transitional government was not discussed at the meeting. US sources clarified that the agreement would work only if the Taliban agreed to a ceasefire and opened direct talks with the Ghani government.
Along with the Taliban, one other player which emerged on top after the latest round of talks is Pakistan. Despite international pressure, Pakistan did not give up on the Taliban and provided it with all kind of support including safe havens, logistical backup and political patronage. It risked American anger and even the loss of billions of dollars in aid, but it never abandoned the Taliban.
In October, Pakistan released from prison Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the co-founders of the Taliban movement. Although there are reports that the release happened because of American pressure, it has generated ample goodwill for Pakistan among Taliban troops. Baradar, a moderate figure held in high esteem by Taliban fighters, will head the group’s political office in Qatar and will lead the 14-member Taliban delegation in the next round of talks with the US starting from February 25.
Pakistan has not just been actively pushing the Taliban to talk to the Americans. When gentle prodding and active persuasion did not work, it even tried detaining family members of Taliban leaders to force the dialogue. Religious leaders, too, were used to convince the Taliban leadership about the futility to continuing the war. Pakistan also provided logistical support to several Taliban leaders to travel to Qatar.
India, which is the largest regional donor in Afghanistan, spending more than $3 billion since 2002, seems to be nowhere in the evolving picture. India’s decision not to speak to the Taliban held some merit so long as the US, too, held the same line. But with the Americans trying to figure a way out of the Afghan quagmire, India seems to be losing its way. The two countries, which used to be with India in opposing Taliban in the past, Russia and Iran, have moved on. The Russians now enjoy good relations with Pakistan and are already talking to the Taliban. Russia has hosted several rounds of dialogues involving the Taliban and is being seen as a key player on the issue. Russia has more or less shed its previous position of not dealing with the Taliban, leaving India in a position difficult to defend.
Shia Iran, which has a more testy relationship with the Taliban and its fundamentalist Sunni theology, too, has been more pragmatic in doing business with it. However, it has got more to do with Iran’s antagonism towards the United States. For example, in 2017, Sharif Yaftali, who was the chief of general staff of the Afghan army, told the BBC that Iran had been supplying arms and ammunition to the Taliban in western Afghanistan. Last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview with an Indian news channel that a future Afghan state without the Taliban was impossible.
It leaves India in an uncomfortable position. So far, it has put all its eggs in the single basket of anti-Talibanism, and is missing room for manoeuvre. There is no doubt that India enjoys tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan. It leads in providing humanitarian assistance, building infrastructure, providing educational support to Afghan students and is the largest importer of Afghan goods. Indian soft power in Afghanistan is incredible, but for a country going through a major security crisis, hard power is equally important. India does not seem to have the kind of coercive power required to protect its interests in Afghanistan. India does not share a border with Afghanistan like Pakistan and Iran do. Access is an issue. Similarly, India has no boots on ground, complicating the situation. In such a scenario, shutting the Taliban out completely may not be an option as geopolitical events in the region seems to overwhelm Indian positions.
Pakistan, meanwhile, is stepping up its game. If latest reports are to be believed, before the next round of scheduled talks between the US and the Taliban in Doha, a Taliban team will be arriving in Islamabad on February 18 and meet Khalilzad at the invitation of the Pakistan government. The Taliban delegation will also meet Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Any further development on this front is likely to consolidate Pakistan’s position in the future of Afghanistan.
India has been trying to modify its decades-long position on the Taliban by non-officially participating in the Moscow conference on Afghanistan held in November. Two Indian retired diplomats took part in the conference which saw delegations from the Taliban and Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, while there was no official participation from Afghanistan. India needs to carry forward such initiatives and try to speak to all relevant players in Afghanistan to safeguard its vital interests.