Analysing India’s role in the Afghan Peace Process

Neeraj Singh Manhas
16th August 2021

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

The horrific 9/11 incident triggered a two decade long US military intervention in Afghanistan. The United States went to war against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and its sympathisers. However, after hundreds of Afghan military, US troops, civilians, and Taliban militants were killed, the US military involvement in the Afghan war is finally coming to a close, with the US withdrawing over 4,500 troops from the province by November 2020. The war cost more than $100 billion, and it was one of President Donald Trump’s big campaign pledges. However, despite Joe Biden assuming the presidency of the United States, the policy remains unchanged. According to Pentagon sources, Joe Biden wants all US forces out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the dreadful 9/11 assault. In this context, the article attempts to analyse India’s role in the Afghan peace process and its possible way forward.

When the Afghan peace process began two years ago, India’s engagement was minimal at best. However, this could change if Indian External Affairs Minister “Subrahmanyam Jaishankar” attending the opening ceremony of the intra-Afghan negotiations on September 12, 2020, indicated a shift in the country’s approach. Jaishankar virtually attended the historic first meeting in Doha and underlined India’s long-standing support for a Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled” peace process. His participation raised the likelihood that India would agree to direct negotiations with the Taliban at a specific period in the future.

While India has traditionally chosen not to deploy troops on the ground in Afghanistan, it has provided essential operational training, capacity development courses, and limited equipment to Afghan security forces, which has been increased since the signing of the “India-Afghanistan Strategic Relationship” agreement in October 2011. Along with highlights of partnership in the fields of justice, security, and law enforcement, the agreement included a common commitment to combating the world’s terrorist and criminal networks. On the political front, India was one of the earliest and most influential supporters of democratic administration in Kabul. Since the 2001 Bonn Conference, India has maintained a broad strategy of engagement with successive Afghan administrations. Since 2001, the United States has spent billions of dollars on infrastructure development and humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. While New Delhi cannot compete with Western levels of economic support, India remains the region’s most trustworthy development assistance partner.

Although India has supported a reconciliation process that Afghans control and negotiate, India’s approach to the Taliban has shifted little over time. In the 1990s, India opposed the Taliban administration and backed the Northern Alliance, which was supported by Russia and Iran. However, at the end of the 2000s, while India continued to support the Afghan Government’s election and reconciliation efforts, it was no longer absolutely unwilling to deal with the Taliban more substantively. And, while no direct communication channel was established between the Taliban and India during the first session of the Doha Peace Talks about their underlying interest in Afghanistan, New Delhi’s statement of goals in Afghanistan demonstrated that it is shifting in its perspective of the Taliban.

The Taliban, for its part, is unlikely to appear to be a strong partner for India, but the organisation has also suggested that dealing with the country is not intrinsically harmful. The Taliban dismissed reports of allying with Islamist organisations in Kashmir a few months ago, stressing that they were opposed to intervening in other countries’ domestic affairs. The dynamics between India and the Taliban are changing now that the United States is ready to withdraw its armed forces from Afghanistan as stipulated in the February 2021 agreement, and the timeframe has been extended to September 2021. The Taliban’s ambitions for a larger share of the political pie will be bolstered by the absence of US forces. The Taliban appear to have the upper hand in the conflict, which they may use as a legitimising weapon when they come to power.

As a result, it is critical to examine India’s commitment to an emerging Taliban for a variety of reasons:

  • The Taliban are expected to become an important part of the Kabul government very soon.
  • Establishing diplomatic relations with a politically powerful Taliban would be important to defend New Delhi’s current and future economic concerns, notably those relating to Central Asian energy markets and larger connectivity projects.
  • A tight relationship with the Taliban would give India clout over the future of Afghanistan, balancing Pakistan’s attempts to undermine India’s country’s role.

India, without a question, has a long way to go. Either a Taliban-controlled policy apparatus or a continued lack of agreement and terrorism are the most likely outcomes of the negotiations. In each case, the Taliban will continue to pose a huge concern not only for Afghans but also for the region as a whole. The primary challenge for India is Pakistan, which has become a part of the Afghan reconciliation process. India should not lose sight of the challenges it faces as it expands its engagement with various Afghan entities, with Pakistan potentially wielding overwhelming influence over Afghanistan. The most pressing concern remains the threat of extremism and terrorism, and how the alleged Taliban would impact the regional security environment.

According to the American Defence Department, the Taliban’s militant branch, the Haqqani network, is still vehemently anti-India and has close contacts with Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, undertaking operations against Indian civilians throughout the region. Another security issue is that the “Islamic State-Khorasan” is expanding in Afghanistan and its surrounding countries, capable of absorbing splinter organisations such as the fractious local Taliban and others.

China is another regional power that shares India’s concern about Afghanistan’s instability spreading to other neighbouring countries. Beijing is anxious because Afghanistan is geographically close to its “Uighur Muslim”-dominated Xinjiang province. China is also economically invested in Afghanistan, with numerous projects tied to its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. China is attempting to defend its place in Afghanistan by extending diplomatic outreach to Kabul while retaining tighter ties with the Taliban. All of these connections promise to increase business and investment in the country.

The India-China rivalry may pull New Delhi closer to Tehran and Moscow, which share India’s goals in the region. While the Afghan government remains sceptical of any Russian involvement with the Taliban, Moscow is unwavering in its commitment to supporting discussions between various Afghan interlocutors. In terms of Iran, Tehran has proved that it understands the importance of tactical involvement with the Group but is unable to reconcile the Taliban’s anti-Shiite beliefs. With New Delhi retaining strategic ties with Moscow and devoting diplomatic resources in building ties with Tehran, a coordinated three-way approach in Afghanistan is unavoidable.

India may be the only country dealing with the US and Europe on one side, while Russia and Iran underline their respective roles in helping to the Afghan peace process on the other. Every nation seeks to align its commitment policy with its own strategic aims, but the overarching goal for all is peace in Afghanistan. An agreement on dealing with the Taliban is critical among key international parties, and India may have a role in developing and executing it.

Despite the start of intra-Afghan talks, Afghanistan’s war is far from over. Many problems and hazards would be exacerbated if Qatar fails to reach an agreement. What happens in Afghanistan is never forgotten. As a result, India must rapidly form a coalition to encourage a strong regional diplomatic effort to resolve the Afghan crisis. Furthermore, India, Iran, and Russia may build cooperation structures for business and economic links with Afghanistan, as well as regional security convergence. It may allow India to temper Chinese aggression and obstinacy in Pakistan. If New Delhi is to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan and Iran, it will need new leverage and confidence. Neither would be possible without the collaboration of others. Even if New Delhi focuses on forging a new reality in the Indo-Pacific, it cannot afford to ignore its Eurasian neighbours.

*The Author is Research Intern at Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies

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