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Afghanistan, officially known as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, is a landlocked country at the crossroads of Central and South Asia. Afghanistan is bordered by Pakistan to the East and South; Iran to the West; Turkmenistan; Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the North, China to the North East. It also shares a very small border with India in the North East but presently that is under illegal occupation of Pakistan.
Map-1: Afghanistan and its Neighbours
Ethnicity– Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic and mostly tribal society. The Afghan constitution mentions 14 Ethnolinguistic groups. These are: Pashtun; Tajik; Uzbek; Hazara; Aymaq; Turkmen; Baloch; Pashai; Nuristani; Gujjar; Arab; Brahui; Pamiri; Kyrgyz and others. Their concentration is as shown in the Map-2 below:-
Map-2: Ethnic Concentration in Afghanistan
Table-1:Ethnic groups in Afghanistan
|Ethnic Group||World Facebook/Library of Congress Country Studies(recent estimate)||World Factbook / Library of Congress Country Studies (pre-2004 estimates)||Major Population Concentration|
|Pashtun||42%||38-50%||Hindukush Mountains in Afghanistan and Indus River in Pakistan|
|Tajik||27%||25-26%||Cities of Herat, Kabul & Mazar-e-Sharif and rural areas of Badakhshan|
|Hazara (majority Shia)||9%||12-19%||Hazarajat Region of Central Afghanistan|
|Uzbek||9%||6-8%||Northern regions of the country|
|Aymaq||4%||500,000-800,000||Western Areas of Badghis, Ghor and Herat Provinces|
|Baloch||2%||100,000||Balochistan Region of Afghanistan|
|Others (Pashai, Nuristani, Arab, Brahui, Pamiri, Gujjar etc||4%||6.9%||Isolated regions of North Eastern Afghanistan|
Population– In 2017, it was estimated to be 29.2 million. Of this, 15 million were males and 14.2 million were females. About 22% of them were urbanite and the remaining 78% lived in rural areas. An additional 3 million or so Afghans are temporarily housed in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, most of whom were born and raised in those two countries. This makes the total Afghan population at around 33,332,025, and its current growth rate is 2.34%.
The Afghan government announced in 2013 that it will begin issuing e-ID cards in which the ethnicity of each citizen will be mentioned.
The Taliban refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). They are a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political movement and a military organisation. Currently they are waging a war within the country to get control of the country. The Taliban emerged in 1994 as one of the prominent factions in the Afghan Civil war and largely consisted of students (Talib) from the Pashtun areas of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan; who had been educated in traditional Islamic Schools and fought during the Soviet- Afghan War. Under the leadership of Mohammed Omar, the movement spread across most of Afghanistan and snatched power from the Mujahideen warlords. Most of the Taliban are Pashtun and their ideology is a combination of an “innovative” form of Sharia Islamic law based on Deobandi fundamentalism, the militant Islamism and Salafi jihadism of Osama bin Laden with Pashtun social and cultural norms known as Pashtunwali. Initially Taliban commanders were a mixture of former small-unit military commanders and madrassa teachers.
It is believed that Pakistan had been responsible for creating Taliban in Oct 1994 with the hope that the new ruling power in Afghanistan would be favourable to Pakistan and as such will provide them strategic depth against India. It is mentioned that between 1994 and 1999, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Pakistanis trained and fought in Afghanistan on the side of the Taliban and till 9/11 Pakistani military and ISI officers along with thousands of regular Pakistani armed forces personnel had been involved in the fighting in Afghanistan. Analysts described the Taliban then as a force developing into a ‘Proxy ’ for Pakistan’s regional interests. It may however be noted that though the Taliban received support of all kinds from Pakistan; yet the connection has always been fragile. While the objective of the ISI and Pakistan was to exert control on the Taliban, the latter managed to keep its independence and yet kept extracting support. Its main supporters in Pakistan were Pak Army and Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam (F).
In November 1994, the Taliban conquered Kandahar. By Jan 1995 they got the control of 12 Afghan Provinces. By 1998 they controlled 90% of the Afghanistan. At this stage, the Taliban were popular, because they stamped out corruption, curbed lawlessness, and made the roads and area safe. The Taliban entered Kabul on 27 September 1996 and established the ‘Islamic Emirate Of Afghanistan’. At its peak, formal diplomatic recognition of the Taliban’s government was provided by only three nations, namely; Pakistan; Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Taliban shifted the capital to Kandahar. From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban held power over roughly three quarters of Afghanistan and enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia or Islamic law. The military goal of the Taliban during the period 1995 to 2001 was to return the order of Abdur Rahman by the re-establishment of a state with Pashtun dominance within the Northern Areas. The Taliban sought to establish an Islamic government alongside a strict interpretation of Sharia law, in accordance with the Hanafi School of Islamic Jurisprudence and religious edicts of Mullah Omar. The Taliban have been condemned internationally for the harsh enforcement of their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, which has resulted in the brutal treatment of many Afghans, especially women and minorities. During their rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban and their allies committed massacres against Afghan civilians, denied UN food supplies to 160,000 starving civilians and conducted a policy of scorched earth: burning vast areas of fertile land and destroying tens of thousands of homes. During their rule they banned hobbies and activities such as kite flying and keeping birds as pets and discriminatorily targeted many ethnic/ religious minorities, including Shia Muslims, while their enforcement of identifiable badges on Hindus was reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews. According to the UN, the Taliban and their allies were responsible for 76% of Afghan civilian casualties in 2010, 80% in 2011, and 80% in 2012. The Taliban had also been engaged in cultural genocide, destroying numerous monuments including the famous 1500-year old Statue of Buddha at Bamiyan. In December 2000, the UNSC took cognizance of the fact that the territory controlled by Taliban was being used for the training of terrorists, for providing safe haven to Osama bin Laden and the violation of human rights of Afghan people was quite rampant. UNSC passed Resolution 1333; which imposed severe sanctions against the area controlled by Taliban. During 2001 it became clear that a large number of Pakistani Jihadi, as well as regular troops and almost 2500 Al Qaeda militants, were fighting alongside Afghan Taliban against the military force of Afghanistan.
In late 1996 Two of the ethnic War Lords; namely; Ahmed Shah Massoud a Tajik and Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek; joined together and created the United Front (Northern Alliance) against the Taliban that was preparing offensives against the remaining areas under the control of Massoud and Dostum. The United Front also included Hazara troops led by Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq and Pashtun forces under the leadership of Abdul Haq and Haji Abdul Qadir. Notable politicians and diplomats of the United Front were Abdul Rahim Ghafoorzai, Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Massoud Khalili. From the Taliban conquest of Kabul in September 1996 until November 2001 the United Front controlled roughly 30% of Afghanistan’s population in provinces such as; Badakhshan; Kapisa; Takhar and parts of Parwan; Kunar, Nuristan; Laghman; Samangan; Kunduz; Ghor and Bamyan. After longstanding battles, especially for the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Junbish forces were defeated by the Taliban and their allies in 1998. Ahmad Shah Massoud remained the only major anti-Taliban leader inside Afghanistan who was able to defend vast parts of his territory against the Taliban. India along with Iran and Russia was supporting the Northern Alliance.
US Intervention Post 9/11
Following the 09/11 attack, in October 2001, the USA with allies including the Afghan Northern Alliance invaded Afghanistan. The stated objective of military operations was to remove the Taliban from power, and prevent the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations. The CIA’s elite Specialist Activities Division (SAD) units were the first US forces to enter Afghanistan. They along with troops of Northern Alliance prepared the ground for the subsequent arrival of the US Special Operations forces. The Combined forces, thus formed, overthrew the Taliban with minimal coalition casualties, and without the use of international conventional ground forces. Mazar-i-Sharif fell to United Front troops during beginning of November, triggering a cascade of provinces falling with minimal resistance and finally by early December 2001 Kandahar also fell. Taliban were routed the their; leadership fled to Pakistan.
Map-4:War in Afghanistan (2015- to Date)
Although Pakistan claimed that they dropped all support to the Taliban after 9/11 but With continued support from tribal and other groups in Pakistan, the drug trade, and due to small number of NATO forces, the Taliban forces and leaders survived and managed to regroup by 2003 as an insurgent movement and continued to fight the American-backed, Karzai/ Ashraf Ghani Administration and the NATO led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The Observers suggested that the poppy eradication, which hurts the livelihoods of those Afghans who have resorted to its production, and civilian deaths caused by airstrikes abetted the resurgence. By February 2009, The Taliban Leadership had established themselves at Quetta and a strong insurgency had coalesced, known as Operation Al Fath. By By July 2016, It was reported by Time Magazine that 20% of Afghanistan was under Taliban control with southernmost Helmand Province as their stronghold. Since 2016, the Taliban’s Supreme leader is Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada.
India’s Stand– India did not recognise the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and instead maintained close strategic and military ties with the Northern alliance, so as to contain the rise of Taliban during the 1990s. India was one of the closest allies of former Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah and strongly condemned his public execution by the Taliban. The antipathy was mutual. It is also believed that Pakistan and Kashmir-based militant groups have ties with the Taliban.
Rebuilding of Afghanistan
In December 2001, a number of prominent Afghans met under the United Nations’ auspices in Bonn Germany to decide on a plan for governing the country. As a result, the Afghan Interim Administration (AIA) – made up of 30 members, headed by a chairman – was inaugurated on December 22, 2001, with a six-month mandate to be followed by a two-year Afghan Transitional Administration (ATA), after which elections were to be held for the creation of a democratic Afghanistan.
The UNSC authorized the creation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to help to provide basic security for the population of Afghanistan. Members of the US Armed forces and other NATO countries began sending large number of troops to Afghanistan. They began to train the Afghan Armed Forces and Afghan National Police as well as fight insurgents and take part in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
The structure of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan (TISA) was announced on June 10, 2002 during the emergency Loya Jirga (grand assembly). Other decisions were that a constitution will be adopted within 18 months, elections would be held in 24 months and Loya Jirga will be replaced by a National Assembly. The meeting of a constitutional loya jirga was held in December 2003, when a new constitution was adopted creating a presidential form of government with a bicameral legislature: the House of Elders and House of the People. The governance structure of Afghanistan entails; the President assisted by cabinet ministers, provincial governors and the national assembly. President is also the Commander in Chief of the Afghan Armed Forces. The Presidential elections were finally held on 09 Oct 2004. The current President is Ashraf Ghani since 2014 and Abdullah Abdullah is the CEO. In last decade the politics of Afghanistan has been influenced by NATO and US with a view to strengthen the democratic institutions in the country. In Sep 2014, the Afghan Govt signed a Bilateral Security Agreement with US (the agreement is meant to allow 9,800 American and at least 2,000 NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan after the international combat mission formally ended on Dec. 31 2014.
Afghan Peace Process
By 2009 there was broad agreement in Afghanistan that the war should end. In a televised speech after being elected for the second time, Karzai called on Taliban to lay down arms and join the peace process. He again reiterated his request to Taliban during the London conference in January 2010. It was consistent position of the Afghan Govt to initiate talks with the Taliban and other militants “who are not part of Al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks or ideologically against Afghan Govt. However the initiative fell through after a start when their Second-in-Command Abdul Ghani Baradar who was in support of the proposal was arrested in Karachi. This showed that Pakistan was against the talks. The negotiations again commenced in 2010. However Taliban refused to talk to the Afghan govt, portraying them as an American puppet. Thus talks were held between US and Taliban. But talks collapsed in Aug 2011. On- Off of talks continued till Jan 2016. The process got intensified in 2018 with talks between the Taliban, The Afghan Govt and the US troops. Most of the talks have taken place in Doha, where a Taliban Office is based. Besides the United States, regional powers such as Pakistan, China and Russia as well as NATO are playing a part in facilitating the peace process.
On February 27, 2018, following an increase in violence, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proposed unconditional peace talks with the Taliban, offering them recognition as a legal political party and the release of the Taliban prisoners. The offer was the most favourable to the Taliban since the war started. It was preceded by months of national consensus building, which found that Afghans overwhelmingly supporting a negotiated end to the war. On March 27, 2018, a conference of 20 countries in Tashkent backed the Afghan government’s peace offer to the Taliban. However, the Taliban did not publicly respond to Ghani’s offer. A growing peace movement arose in Afghanistan during 2018, particularly following a peace march, which the Afghan media dubbed the “Helmand Peace Convoy”. The marchers met Ghani and held sit-in protests outside the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Following the march, Ghani and the Taliban agreed a mutual ceasefire during June 2018. Taliban members flocked into Kabul where they met and communicated with locals and state security forces. Although civilians called for the ceasefire to be made permanent, the Taliban rejected an extension. American officials secretly met Taliban members in July 2018, at the latter’s political office in Qatar. In September 2018, Trump appointed Zalmay Khalizad as special adviser on Afghanistan , with the stated goal of facilitating an intra-Afghan political peace process. Khalilzad led further talks between the US and the Taliban in Qatar in October 2018. Russia hosted a separate peace talk in November 2018 between the Taliban and officials from Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. The talks in Qatar resumed in December 2018, though the Taliban refused to allow the Afghan government to be invited, considering them a puppet of US. Taliban also spoke with Afghans less Afghan Govt in Moscow in Feb 2019. A further round of talks in Qatar were held in February 2019. Khalilzad reported that this round of negotiations was more productive and that a draft version of a peace agreement had been agreed. The deal involved the withdrawal of US and international troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban not allowing other jihadist groups to operate within the country. A delegation of Taliban officials and senior Afghan politicians met in Moscow for peace talks in February and May 2019. An eighth round of US-Taliban talks in Qatar was held in August 2019. The Washington Post reported that the US was close to reaching a peace deal with the Taliban and was preparing to withdraw 5,000 troops from Afghanistan. The process got derailed when in September, Trump cancelled the peace talks in response to an attack in Kabul. Peace negotiations however resumed and finally on February 29, 2020, the U.S. signed a conditional peace agreement with the Taliban, which calls for the withdrawal of foreign troops in 14 months if the Taliban uphold the terms of the agreement. The UNSC unanimously backed the U.S.-Taliban peace deal. Some of the important provisions of the agreement besides withdrawal of troops are in four parts which are as follows:-
- Guarantees and enforcement mechanisms that will prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies.
- Guarantees, enforcement mechanisms, and announcement of a timeline for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan within 14 months:-
- In first 135 days 8600 US troops and proportionately troops from Allies will be withdrawn
- Forces from five military bases will be withdrawn.
- All other forces will be withdrawn in next nine and half months.
- During this period balance of bases will also be vacated.
- Up to five thousand (5,000) prisoners of the Taliban and up to one thousand (1,000) prisoners of the other side will be released by March 10, 2020. The relevant sides have the goal of releasing all the remaining prisoners over the course of the subsequent three months.
- With the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, the United States will initiate an administrative review of current U.S. sanctions and the rewards list against members of the Taliban with the goal of removing these sanctions by August 27, 2020.
- With the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, the US will start diplomatic engagement with other members of the UNSC and Afghanistan to remove members of the Taliban from the sanctions list with the aim of achieving this objective by May 29, 2020.
- The US and its allies will refrain from the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Afghanistan or intervening in its domestic affairs.
- Afghan soil will not be used against the security of the United States and its allies, the Taliban will not act as a state, The Taliban will be committed to deal with those seeking asylum or residence in Afghanistan according to international migration law and the commitments of this agreement, will not encourage recruitment or training any other group indulging in anti US activity and the Taliban will start intra-Afghan negotiations with Afghan sides on March 10, 2020.
- A permanent and comprehensive ceasefire will be an item on the agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations:-
- The US will request the recognition and endorsement of the UNSC for this agreement.
- The US and the Taliban seek positive relations with each other and expect that the relations between the US and the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations will be positive.
- The US will seek economic cooperation for reconstruction with the new post settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations, and will not intervene in its internal affairs.
A perusal of this agreement brings out that US almost abandoned the Afghan Govt. No wonder the Afghan government, which was not a party to the deal, rejected the U.S. and Taliban’s call for a prisoner swap by March 10, 2020, but finally agreed to swap 1,500 Taliban prisoners starting on the condition that they sign pledges agreeing not to return to combat. A decree was signed accordingly by the President Ghani. Taliban rejected Ghani’s prisoner swap decree and still insisted on the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners. After a protracted discussion and much blood bath it was finally agreed that 100 Taliban prisoners would be released in exchange for 20 Afghan military personnel. Accordingly by August 2020, the Afghan government had released 5,100 prisoners, and the Taliban had released 1,000. Later balance 400 prisoners belonging to Taliban having serious charges have also been released after getting clearance from Loya Jirga. Because of this issue Intra afghan talks scheduled to start in Mar 2020 could not start.
It needs to be noted that after Taliban rejected the offer of the prisoners’ swap in May 2020 President Ghani ordered Afghan Military to resume offensive against Taliban. There had been a surge in the insurgent attacks against the Afghan Security Forces and attacks against minorities between 01 Mar and 15 Apr 2020 (almost 70% increase as against the figures of last year). The worst came on 22 June when in one week 291 personnel of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces were killed and 550 others were wounded. It was worst in 19 years No wonder the President Trump has said that the war was becoming too costly. As such US was keen to get out of Afghanistan as her troops have been on the ground and directly involved in the war for 18 years, with analysts describing the situation as a stalemate. USA pressurised President Ghani to agree to Prisoner swap deal and the day President Ghani signed the Prisoners’ Swap deal, the U.S. started withdrawing some troops. In this connection it needs to be noted that though Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and influence of Pakistan have “diminished”, the Taliban insurgents haven’t weakened. A confusing signal has emanated from US. On 01 July 2020, the U.S House Armed Services Committee overwhelmingly voted in favour of a National Defence Authorization Act amendment to restrict President Trump’s ability to withdraw US Troops from Afghanistan.
In the meantime On 17 May 2020, President Ghani signed a power-sharing deal with his rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah. This deal ended the long-running dispute about the results of the 2019 Afghan presidential elections, and assigned responsibility for peace negotiations to Dr Abdullah. This indeed strengthened the Afghan Govt to deal with the Taliban.
Finally talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in Doha on September 12, 2020. Mawlavi Abdul Hakim lead negotiations for the Taliban, he is the group’s chief justice. Dr Abdullah Abdullah lead the Afghan government negotiating team. Key speakers at opening ceremony included Abdullah Abdullah, chairperson of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Growing Sino- Afghan Relations
China and Afghanistan signed the bilateral Friendship and Mutual Non-Aggression Treaty in 1960. The central theme of the Treaty was to enhance economic engagement. Till 2014 China’s interest in Afghanistan was colinear with Pakistan, who looked Afghanistan as part of her strategic depth. However with the prospect of withdrawal of US and her allies becoming a reality and the consequent security vacuum emerging, China has become conscious of relative importance of Afghanistan in her security matrix on her Western borders.
China over a period of time has developed substantial economic and diplomatic leverage over Afghanistan , She appears to be trying to project herself as a dominant economic power in South and Central Asia. In Afghanistan, a consortium of Chinese state-owned enterprises secured the concession to the country’s biggest copper mine in 2008. China has injected massive investment in Pakistan and Central Asian states. This has also created imbalances, even dependencies, in their bilateral relations. In Pakistan, China has committed to invest $62 billion in the so-called Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor alone. On 27 mar 2021, China signed a strategic partnership agreement with Iran on trade, politics, and security, giving Beijing a strategic foothold in the Persian Gulf. These deals and the current state of relationship of China with Pakistan Central Asia and Russia suggests that China will be keen to have Afghanistan also under her political and economic influence for the safety and sustainability of projects supported by China in the region. It is worth noting that Pakistan and the Taliban has taken little visible action against groups China considers a threat to Xinjiang.
With US and her allies vacating Afghanistan by Sep 2021, China is likely to be quite apprehensive about the security threats which may emanate from Afghanistan to Xinjiang in support of Uyghur rebels (East Turkistan Independence Movement (ETIM)) there. China appears to be preparing for a worst case scenario in which the hasty US and her allies withdrawal along with failed peace talks between Afghan Govt and Taliban may result into a civil war. No wonder by 2019 PLA has established a base at the far western edge of its territorial reach, perched in the mountains adjacent to Tajikistan, Afghanistan and its own frontier.
Keeping her own interests in mind and with the façade of a responsible power China has taken the position on the ongoing peace process that she supports US led efforts. She, in a subtle manner is wanting continued presence of U.S. counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan as such she has warned US as well as NATO against a hasty withdrawal. At the same time she, in conjunction with Pakistan, is not pressing the Taliban for an immediate ceasefire. China is seeking to establish a dialogue with Taliban with the support of Pakistan. China has had direct contacts with the Taliban and has maintained open diplomatic relations for some years, but this seems to have taken place in consultation with Islamabad – in line with deference to Pakistan’s interests in the region. China’s diplomatic reach is expanding in the region, and a more assertive China seems likely in the near future. Manifestation of this policy is visible wherein she has been trying to chart an independent course in UNSC specially when it comes to annual extensions of the UN mission in Afghanistan. China will also try to fill the void left by US and her allies as far as funding and economic support is concerned. Chinese officials have already hinted at the possibility of extending the CPEC to Afghanistan. Beijing has already set up the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Turkmenistan railway line. Similarly China may support many more infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. Basically it would amount to creating yet another option for her BRI project.
Impact on India
In the wake of ongoing Sino-Indian Standoff, the Chinese outreach to India’s immediate neighbours and those in its extended neighbourhood is a matter of concern for India. However, if the past is anything to go by, China’s economic involvement in countries like Afghanistan is a story of unfulfilled promises. A look at Chinese investment clearly shows that Afghanistan does not feature in her priority list. Therefore notwithstanding Chinese willingness to engage with Taliban Chinese strategy has its own challenges. In this connection, it needs to be noted that the Chinese assistance to Afghanistan was just $2.2 million in 2016 and India was the largest South Asian donor and has played a crucial role in the infrastructure development of Afghanistan, in humanitarian assistance, small & community-development projects, in education and capacity building. While Indian projects are mostly complete whereas Chinese projects be it Amu Darya for Oil exploration or copper mines project at Mes Ayank for are all languishing. In this connection it needs to be noted that India has been doing development in which local jobs are getting generated whereas Chines philosophy is do a turn key project where locals are not getting involved. Therefore it would be prudent for India to continue it current policy but make an effort to engage Taliban.
The Agenda for the talks include ; permanent ceasefire; the political future of Afghanistan and social equality in post US withdrawal scenario. The challenges in post US withdrawal period would be law enforcement, maintaining gender justice (as enshrined in the 2004 Constitution) and social equality. Delegates of Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban continue finalizing “rules of negotiations” for a power-sharing deal. There appears to be a perceptual incongruence between Taliban and the Afghan govt and a consequent trust deficit. Taliban is insisting on Islamic Governance while the Afghan govt says that the current dispensation is fully Islamic. The Taliban has not even gone for ceasefire and same is being reciprocated by the Afghan govt. As such while the talks are in progress heavy fighting is also going on simultaneously. Incidentally the influence of Pakistan on the Taliban’s position is quite evident. The US ambassador to Afghanistan warned that a peace agreement could risk the Taliban coming back into power. Pakistan warned that the rising tensions in the Gulf region after the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani could affect the already-delayed US-Afghanistan peace process.
Recently, the United Nations Secretariat held a meeting of the “6+2+1” group on regional efforts to support peace in Afghanistan. This group includes six neighbouring countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; two global players the United States and Russia, and Afghanistan itself.
However, India has not been invited to this peace process. The reason given for keeping India out of this regional discussions is that India holds no “boundary” with Afghanistan, which is not true and that shows influence of Pakistan on the peace process and India’s cold relationship with the Taliban (India indeed shares boundary with Afghanistan but that portion of Gilgit Baltistan is presently under illegal occupation of Pakistan). It is an irony that despite all the development work taken up by India in Afghanistan over the past 18 years since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul in 2001, India finds itself on the margins of international diplomacy in Afghanistan.
Map-5: Developmental Works done in Afghanistan by India
India’s Interest in Afghanistan
- Economic and Strategic Interest: Afghanistan because of its geography is a gateway to the oil and mineral-rich Central Asian republics.
- Developmental Projects: The massive reconstruction plans for the country provide opportunities for Indian companies. In fact India has done a number of developmental projects in Afghanistan and has earned a lot of goodwill of locals besides three major projects India has already provided assistance to the tune of US $ 3 billion.
Security Interest: good relations with Afghanistan will be able to check the capability of Pakistan to use Haqqani Network and other terrorist organisations to cause trouble in India.
Way Ahead for India
Afghanistan and Pakistan observers believe that Taliban share good relations with Haqqani network, which is operating from Pakistan and reportedly enjoy the backing of Pakistan intelligence agency ISI and therefore it may use it as strategic depth influencing the process and ultimately controlling it. Recently Dr Abdullah Abdullah was in New Delhi and in an interview to ANI he allayed India’s fear that Pakistan backed terrorists may hijack the Afghan peace process. He said that certain foreign influence would be there but the ultimate solution to restore peace in the war-torn country will be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned. He further added that the peaceful and democratic Afghanistan not harbouring terrorists was what they were aiming for. Dr Jai Shankar, EAM of India on behalf of India assured Dr Abdullah India’s commitment to an inclusive, peaceful, prosperous and stable Afghanistan. As such India supports a solution, which is inclusive and led and owned by Afghanistan. Aspects which merit attention in this regard are as follows:-
- India so far has been interacting only with the Afghan Govt but with the Taliban, there has been no communication.
- India has extended help to build the infrastructure, which has repeatedly been attacked by Haqqani Group due Indian diplomatic inability to convey to the Taliban that, what India is building would be useful for Afghanistan even in future.
- It needs to be appreciated that post-withdrawal of US Forces and her allies from Afghanistan by end 2021, the Taliban will have an important role in the governance of the country, therefore India needs to review its policy to keep away from the Taliban.
Following steps are recommended to be taken by the GoI:-
- Broader Diplomatic Engagement.
- Continued training of all sections of society, governance elements and armed forces
- Continue the investment in infrastructure build-up in a manner that employment and the local business gets boosted up.
- Work with and through others.
Notwithstanding the Agreement between US and the Taliban, situation is quite hazy, because deal between the Taliban and the Afghan govt is still not a reality. Besides arrogance on the part of the Taliban on account of their military strength, it is the trust deficit between the two warring factions of the Afghan polity which is substantially responsible for slow progress towards the peace returning to the war torn Country which is in turmoil since 1978. In this connection, it needs to be appreciated that Taliban fully realise that US is quite serious to disengage from Afghanistan as soon as possible. This makes both Afghan govt as well as common Afghanistan citizen specially women and minorities quite apprehensive about the future, in case the Taliban have their way and a Wahabi Islamic Emirate is established. In fact not only people in Afghanistan but even the NSA of Pakistan now feels that the decision of US at the moment to evacuate from Afghanistan by September is hasty and may leave Afghanistan in turmoil in its wake. In such a situation India will have minimum leverage with the regime as India has so far refrained from having any contact with the Taliban.
Other scenario is that the talks fail. That is a worst-case scenario because in that case the country will get plunged into a civil war and in that case while miseries of Afghanistan people will get compounded and the probability of a foreign intervention will be quite distinct to bring in order.
It is therefore important that a honorable deal is struck between the Taliban and the Afghan govt. It would be possible only if the deal becomes an Afghan-owned deal. However for that to happen outside powers like Pakistan, China and Iran are kept outside the discussion. Also, US needs to ensure that the guarantees given in the US Taliban deal are adhered to. Finally country will need massive reconstruction and reconciliation. This is where India can pitch in. However given the ethnic divide and interference from countries like Pakistan, Iran and China it would be quite challenging to hope for a future government which would be inclusive of all sections/ ethnicity of the Afghan society.
Author – Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM, VSM (Retd) is a retired Indian Army General Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, NE, Andman Nikobar on various appointments at Command and Army HQs. . He is Vice Chairman of Think Tank, “STRIVE”, after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals, and think tanks.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the STRIVE.