Rohith Sai Stambamkadi
10th April 2021
India’s role in the Afghanistan peace process has been a resonating theme of discussion in the strategic community within India and beyond. Calling for a “double peace” both within Afghanistan and in the region, External Affairs Minister (EAM), Dr. S. Jaishankar reiterated India’s support for Intra Afghan Negotiations (IAN), in the recent 9th Heart of Asia Conference in Tajikistan.
In the September 2020 historic intra-Afghan inaugural talks held in Doha, the Minister Jaishankar emphasised on India’s long held support for an “Afghan-held, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled” peace process. On the other hand, the US has been assertive of India’s role in Afghanistan emphasising on a unified and inclusive approach to the peace process.
India and Afghanistan share a historic positive relationship and hold many deep economic, cultural and societal ties ranging from Afghans’ passion for Indian music and film, strong hold on International trade and technology, medical tourism and energy co-operation among others. In the post-Taliban Afghanistan period, India has been a steadfast partner to the country and by far has immensely contributed to the civilian reconstruction of Afghanistan providing assistance in the form of infrastructure and transportation projects, medical teams to treat Afghans, capacity building programmes and educational scholarships to students. India’s aid and assistance to Afghanistan has been more than any other country that India has extended its support to.
For years, India’s interests in the region were secured by the presence of the US and NATO troops that were deployed to maintain peace in the region against a violent Taliban. After multiple attempts for peace talks and failed negotiations, the United States in February 2020 reached an historic agreement with the Taliban where the U.S troops will be fully withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of May 1st 2021. In return, the Taliban is expected to play a larger role in Afghan politics and reach a threshold of peace negotiation through “Intra- Afghan peace talks”.
An undesirable outcome?
The agreement seems to be hardly desirable for a country like India. While the agreement states that the Taliban shall prevent terrorist outfits from operating in Afghanistan, there is no precision on how the agreement will be enforced. On the other hand, it is undeniable to note that the Taliban, especially the Haqqani groups are being aided by the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan. These groups have attacked Indian assets in Afghanistan over decades.
Further, India, just like many other countries, doubts the Taliban intentions for peace and resettlement in Afghanistan and whether the Talibans represent the true interests of Afghan people. Additionally, India’s long-term interests in Afghanistan are impeded by the growing political instability in Kabul. Though there is a power sharing agreement in place between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdallah, it is clear that such alliances cannot be taken at their face value.
It is pertinent to note that India has been investing in Afghanistan partially because of the presence of the U.S-led troops and the relative stability it brought in the region. With this stability at risk, India urgently needs to reposition its strategies and priorities amid the fast-changing times.
Shifting priorities and strategies
India’s approach to the Taliban has subtly shifted over the years. Even though India has continued to give its strong support to the elected Afghan government, it was no longer entirely averse to engaging more substantively with the Taliban for reconciliation in the region. Though no direct channel of communication between India and the Taliban existed, the inaugural Doha summit in 2020 and the recent Heart of Asia Summit reflected the strategic shift of India’s priorities towards Taliban.
The Taliban, for their part, are unlikely to emerge as a strong partner of India, but it has indicated that it is not completely against the notion of working with the country either. The Taliban has assertively denied media reports linking it with jihadi groups in Kashmir and the group has stated that it has no intention of intervening in the internal matters of another country. Perhaps, this incident has represented an overture to New Delhi for re-ascertaining its position towards Afghanistan.
The Real Question and the inevitable dilemma
However, the real question is: does New Delhi have a new playbook for the emerging dynamics in Kabul? Though the peace process is underway, increased insurgent activities in the country post US-Taliban deal heighten the dilemmas for those who have interests in the region. Despite the agreement, the Taliban have conducted nearly 4500 attacks in the country and more than 900 Afghan Security forces were reported dead.
In June 2020, Afghanistan reported its “bloodiest week in 19 years” during which 291 members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) were killed and about 42 civilians including women and children were dead. For India, an embroiled Taliban may reignite conflict that poses even greater risks in the region. India’s core security concerns, its investments in education, health, infrastructure development and Human Rights of women and children shall be threatened by a new age of Civil war in Afghanistan.
Realistically, the possible outcomes of the talks shall be a political apparatus in the country dominated by the Taliban or continued lack of consensus and violence. In both the cases, the Taliban shall be a new challenge to the region as well as for India. Apart from all these risks, India has to face and compete with another regional power, China which is attempting to secure its place in the evolving Afghanistan both with the government as well as the Taliban. This will remain a point of friction to India.
A way forward for India
Amid these changing dynamics, India has to adopt a set of interlinked mitigating strategies to protect its interests as well as the interests of Afghan people.
The competition between India and China in the region may push New Delhi towards Russia and Iran. Both the nations at present have determined their tactical engagement with the Taliban and share similar goals with India in Afghanistan. The fact that India is the only country that can engage both with the EU and U.S as well as the Iran and Russia puts India in a unique position where India can forge and catalyse a consensus among multiple stakeholders for Afghan peace.
Broader Diplomatic Engagement
India’s diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan must consider appointing a special envoy dedicated to the Afghanistan reconciliation. The envoy can ensure that India’s views and interests are put into the table of discussion, broaden constant engagement with the Afghan government as well as the Taliban representatives.
Capacity Building Training and Assistance:
India must prioritise on capacity building programmes and provide technical assistance to the Afghan government to be able to deal with the ongoing pandemic. Considering long term interests, India must take an active part in rebuilding Afghanistan by helping in the creation of its administrative institutions and constitutional establishments.
Further, it has to actively support and invest in the education, health and economic development of the country by emphasising on regional connectivity, infrastructure and in the energy sector.
Additionally, continued assistance to the Afghan security forces, investments in National Directorate of Security by assisting as well as sharing intelligence can contribute to India’s long-term interests in the region as well as the peace and sustainable growth of Afghanistan.
***The author is Founder and Director, Indian Forum for Public Diplomacy (IFPD) and B.B.A., LL. B (Hons), Birla School of Law***