Afghanistan is witnessing a revival of ‘regional’ interest towards settling the conflict between the government and the deemed anti-government forces. Where this returning of the gaze has its own reasons, it is important to note that almost all the previous international efforts to bring peace to this country have not resulted in much. In fact, if the figures released by UNAMA and SIGAR are anything to go by, the years since the drawdown in 2014 have witnessed a sort of reversal of fortune.
Almost 43% of Afghanistan’s territory has been wrested away from government’s control, while civilian casualties have hit new highs. Social indices are almost stagnating and a flailing economy is dealing a further blow. Important towns have fallen – although later regained – to the Taliban in the midst of constant political bickering and the strengthening of parallel power structures. Added to this, the supposed threat of the ISIS is challenging the National Unity Government in a new manner. In these circumstances, efforts to resolve the spiraling crisis in Afghanistan through talks between the Afghan government and its arch-opponent Taliban sound like a stale prescription, but a prescription nevertheless. Since adding more violence to an already violent situation in Afghanistan has not borne much as the past experiences have told, getting the Afghan government and the Taliban to talk is being seen as a potential way out especially as observers agree that a military solution to Afghanistan looks highly improbable.
A political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan is being claimed as a way out, and there is nothing novel about it; crises have either ended with a political settlement or with the total victory of one side in the conflict attended often with the defeat of the other side to the point of no return. In the case of Afghanistan, a decade and a half long international offense against the Taliban has not managed to yield much. For factors that are national and trans-national to Afghanistan, the antagonist Taliban has managed to stage comebacks many times, with its current re-appearance in Afghanistan appearing to be stronger than ever since 2001. Thus, where the total victory of the Afghan government seems almost unlikely, the Taliban too cannot assume the same degree of control of Afghanistan that it once had. Moreover, the prospect of victory by hardline, Islamist forces in Afghanistan signals danger for countries surrounding it and even beyond.Consequently, the talk of the town these days has been the settlement of this conflict. The questions that remain are‘how’ and ‘when’.
No country, at least overtly, would like to posture itself in favor of continued conflict in Afghanistan. With a military solution to the conflict ruled out, talking to the Taliban appears to be the next way out. To many regional and international players, talks between Kabul and Taliban look to hold some promise, although it is still unclear as to how and when this would be achieved. The previous, and almost dead, rounds of peace conversations that were promoted through the Quadrilateral Coordination Group were affected by various setbacks and impediments. The latest edition of talks led by Russia surely look structurally different, but as argued previously, the member-countries involved in the process are approaching peace in Afghanistan according to their varying and often antagonistic calculations, leaving peace for peace’s sake in Afghanistan in a limbo.
Added to this, the American refusal to become party to the Russia-led talks and its allegations of latter’s ammo support to the Taliban indicate that the ‘Great Game’ in Afghanistan, internationally, might once get revived. A thaw inthe ties between the US and Russia that was expected with the Trump administration taking charge has not happened as anticipated; rather, their divergence over Afghanistan is only appearing to increase by the day. Figure this for instance: Russian envoy to Afghanistan, ZamirKabulov has lent indirect support to Taliban’s demand for withdrawal of foreign forces (read American-led forces) from Afghanistan. Commenting on the US ‘boycott’ of the Russia-led meeting as former’s attempt to ‘sabotage’ the latter’s efforts in Afghanistan, Kabulov took a potshot at the continued presence of the ‘foreign forces’ by asking – “who is in favor of it? Name me one neighboring state that supports it”.
Where the two erstwhile Cold War foes continue to be at odds with each other on how to achieve peace in Afghanistan, both the US and Russia have at different places suggested the need for ‘eventual settlement between Kabul and the Taliban’. Perhaps, if it can be read as such, what might have enhanced national and international faith in political reconciliation in Afghanistan has been the signing of the peace accord between the Afghan government and the GulbuddinHekmatyar led Hezb-e-Islami (HIG). That a militia, which at one point had decided to declare its allegiance to ISIS, came around to sign a peace accord with the government of Afghanistan has infused confidence in the ultimate and eventual settlement between the contending sides in the conflict.
This journey however, is far from being as easy, and for many reasons. One, the Taliban compared to HIG is a bigger entity with greater presence in Afghanistan. Despite the reports of internal bickering within the Taliban, it continues to hold a massive amount of bargaining power vis-à-vis the Afghan government and its international backers. Its capturing of the provincial capitals in Afghanistan; the control of poppy cultivation, and reports of direct engagement with Iran, Russia and Pakistan, have ensured Taliban of a spectral presence. Two, Afghanistan’s crises are equally a product of regional and international rivalries, and as such the ‘eventual settlement’ or the lack of it is bound to create transnational repercussions. The domestic players in Afghanistan – be it the government, other political leaders or the Taliban – have their respective extra-national backers that have made negotiations a very difficult business. Even currently, the Russia-led regional meeting on Afghanistan witnesses divergence of opinion on talks with the Taliban, with India and Afghanistan steadfastly maintaining that reconciliation is possible only upon renunciation of violence by the Taliban. The Taliban, on its part, has set pre-conditions to the talks that include the full withdrawal of the foreign forces from Afghanistan; a proposition that is fraught with domestic and transnational dangers. It also needs to be noted that extraneously caused fragmentation of the Taliban will not be in benefit of the peace process. As previous such experiments have shown, attempts to divide-and-rule have not borne results as the splintered factions have gone ahead to establish their own chain-of-command in the hope of gaining from the free-for-all situation that prevails in Afghanistan in the absence of a consolidated, centralized political regime.
For India, a politically weak Afghanistan that is susceptible to falling to hardline Islamist extremism is a source of grave danger. It has learnt from its past that any dispensation in Afghanistan that has the imprints of the Pakistani deep-state on it is bound to aggravate security problems for it, making it imperative for India to ensure the survival of the democratic republic that Afghanistan today is. To this effect, India has provided development assistance to Afghanistan with the intent to bolster the government’s ability to deliver basic services to its people and ensure greater political legitimacy as a result. Militarily, it has shied away from contributing in a way as expected by Afghanistan for its own strategic reasons, and as far as the talks with the Taliban are concerned, India does not seem to be disposed in its favor. Part of this reluctance emerges from its support to Afghanistan’s demand for renunciation of violence by the Taliban, while the other (greater) part has to do with the strategic implications that the mainstreaming of the Taliban will have for India given that this group evidently receives support and sanctuary in Pakistan.
The way ahead for India is to shed its formal and evident reluctance to talking to the Taliban. As simple as this prescription sounds, pursuing this line of action is fraught with its own issues. To begin with, India had never not been in favor of reconciliation in Afghanistan; what it has been wary about is the mainstreaming of the Taliban. Secondly, since the proposed talks with the Taliban are premised on this distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists, India contends that to consider Taliban a lesser threat would be a mistake and a potential danger for it at least. In fact, the very recent pronouncement of death sentence to a former Indian naval officer, who, as some reports claim was abducted by the Taliban for some dealings with the Pakistani ISI, have once again brought India’s (valid) apprehensions about this group to the fore.
Given these factors, while it would be difficult for India to not go with the flow, which even involves an implicit recognition of Taliban’s pre-conditions, an evident opposition to it might isolate, and even eliminate India from the subsequent meetings. Rather it would be wise to remain inserted in the process and then negotiate a framework for talks and ‘eventual settlement’ that is not too divergent from India’s strategic interests; staying outside the process runs the risk of harming its strategic interests even more.
While a nod to the talks with the Taliban is the price that the other regional players will extract from India in return of ceding it space in the peace process, as of now it would be wise for India to look flexible yet not reveal all its cards unless the Afghan government makes its stance clear. Considering that India and Afghanistan are the only two nations who are currently echoing the same sentiments – on a pre-conditionless, violence free Taliban – it would make more strategic sense for India to not give in to regional pressure since it has the protagonist in question, Afghanistan, appears to be on the same page.
Coming in the backdrop of the Russia-led peace talks on Afghanistan and a persistent lack of clarity on the American policy towards the conflict and its role there, talking to the Taliban even in the midst of reports that this group does not smell sincerity in these consultations, seems to be the only emerging consensus. Underscoring the necessity to talk to the Taliban, almost all the existing parties in this ‘regional’ conversation barring India have established formal and evident channels of communication with this group. By lending indirect support to its red lines, Russia seems inclined to get the Afghan government to talk to the Taliban, preferably without the US playing a role in it. Thus, as the talk of talks appears to be inevitable, one only has to wait to see how and when the ice is broken again.