Context: U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan reconciliation in his visit to India, has suggested that India should directly talk to Taliban for a sustained peace in Afghanistan. This is the first time the USA has publicly suggested India to talk to the Taliban directly.
Background: Earlier, the Indian government had made it clear that India would not engage the Taliban directly, and had not changed its position on the issue.
- Recently, India was not included in a UN-coordinated “6+2+1” meeting of Afghanistan, its neighbours and U.S. and Russia recently, an exclusion New Delhi is understood to have protested.
- “6+2+1” group includes six neighbouring countries of Afghanistan: China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; global players the United States and Russia, and Afghanistan itself.
- The reason given for keeping India out of regional discussions on Afghanistan was that it holds no “boundary” with Afghanistan; but in fact it is because New Delhi has never announced its support for the U.S.-Taliban peace process.
Objectives of the trip: According to the U.S. State department, the trip is meant to build support for the full implementation of the US-Taliban agreement, which has been derailed by differences between the Afghan government and the Taliban over the release of prisoners.
- Part of the Confidence Building Measures leading to intra-Afghan negotiations, is that both the Taliban and the Afghan government have to release prisoners on both sides.
- Secondly that there must be a reduction in violence compared to the period before the agreement was signed,
- Thirdly, that in order to get lasting peace and bring the long war in Afghanistan to an end, the door to negotiations should be opened for a political roadmap and a permanent comprehensive ceasefire.
- International support for peace in Afghanistan is important and Indian support in particular was the focus of the Delhi trip.
- His next stop to Islamabad is also expected to stress the need for a ceasefire, which the Taliban has rejected, and to push for support in kick-starting intra-Afghan talks, which have already missed the recent deadline, set in the U.S.-Taliban February agreement, by two months.
About the USA-Taliban pact
Recently, the US and Taliban signed an agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, which will enable the US and NATO to withdraw troops in the next 14 months.
The key elements of the USA-Taliban pact.
- Withdrawal of troops: The US will draw down its troops in 135 days and the NATO or coalition troop numbers will also be brought down. And all troops will be out within 14 months (all would include non-diplomatic civilian personnel).
- What Taliban Commited?: The main counter-terrorism commitment by the Taliban is that Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.
- Removal of sanctions: UN sanctions on Taliban leaders to be removed by three months and US sanctions by August.
- On prisoner's release: According to the agreements, 5,000 Taliban prisoners will be released by March 2020, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations, and the remainder in another three months. A possible trouble spot because the US-Taliban agreement and the joint declaration differ.
- On ceasefire: The agreement states ceasefire will be simply an item on the agenda when intra-Afghan talks start, and indicates actual ceasefire will come with the completion of an Afghan political agreement.
Challenges for the pact
- Terms still nebulous: The actual terms of the peace deal are yet to be negotiated between the Taliban and the Afghan side, facilitated by the U.S.
- Afghan government completely sidelined: The Afghan government has been completely sidelined during the talks between the US and Taliban.
- Future of the deal depends on the Taliban: The future for the people of Afghanistan is uncertain, and will depend on how the Taliban honours its commitments and whether it goes back to the medieval practices of its 1996-2001 regime.
- Afghan government publicly disagrees on terms of deal: Just after the agreement, Afghanistan’s president said that he will not free thousands of Taliban prisoners ahead of all-Afghan power-sharing talks.
- Agreement on ceasefire another potential trouble spot: As the convergence between all stakeholders is difficult to achieve.
- India-Pakistan tussle: India and Pakistan are not talking to each other, is an impediment to the process in Afghanistan. For reconciliation in Afghanistan, support from Pakistan, India and the international community is very important
How India influenced the Afghan peace process?
- At the Bonn agreement, India ensured that Northern Alliance leaders came to a consensus to accept Hamid Karzai as the Chairman of the interim arrangement that replaced the Taliban regime.
- In 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Afghanistan President Karzai signed the historic Strategic Partnership Agreement, which was Afghanistan’s first such agreement with any country.
- India’s goodwill: The building blocks of that goodwill are India’s assistance in infrastructure projects, health care, education, trade and food security, and also in the liberal access to Afghans to study, train and work in India.
- Future possible role of India: Afghan officials have hinted that they are speaking to the UN, U.S. and others about a broader “6+4” formation for regional talks on Afghanistan soon, which would include India.
Key takeaways of U.S. Special Representative’s visit:
- US suggestion of talking to Taliban: Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad said that India is an important force in Afghanistan and India should talk to Taliban directly.
- India’s concern about the increase in violence in Afghanistan: India made a particular mention of the need to protect “Afghan Hindus and Sikhs,” and supported the call for a ceasefire to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
- Recognising India’s role in sustainable peace: The U.S. side recognised India’s constructive contribution in economic development, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.
- The envoy said India had a “significant role” in Afghanistan’s development, but paradoxically, doesn’t play a role in the international peace efforts.
- India’s concerns over Pakistan’s role: India said that putting an end to terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries is necessary for enduring and sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan,” during the meeting in Delhi.
Concerns for India:
- Exclusion from talks: The countries involved believe that a lasting solution in Afghanistan can be discussed without India in the room. It could seriously hamper India’s interest in Afghanistan and may threaten security in J&K.
- US-Taliban agreement: For India, it is the groups in Afghanistan that target India, which are backed by Pakistan that are a worry, and the US Taliban agreement doesn’t mention those.
- Flawed approach: India’s position that only an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled process can be allowed is a principled one, but has no takers. Kabul, or the Ashraf Ghani government does not lead, own or control the reconciliation process today.
- Supporting Ashraf Ghani not yielding results: It has had a two-fold effect:
- India’s voice in the reconciliation process has been limited
- It has weakened India’s position with other leaders of the deeply divided democratic setup in Kabul such as the former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
- India and Taliban’s bitter past: The Taliban perceived India as a hostile country, as India had supported the anti-Taliban force Northern Alliance in the 1990s.
- India never gave diplomatic and official recognition to the Taliban when it was in power during 1996-2001.
- Stronger Taliban: The U.S.-Taliban peace deal means that the Taliban will become more potent as the U.S. withdraws soldiers from the country, and will hold more sway in the inter-Afghan process.
- Anti India terrorism: The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), believed to be backed by Pakistan’s establishment has been active. Recent attack on a gurdwara in Kabul was meant for the Indian embassy in Kabul.
- The Citizenship (Amendment) Act issue: Afghanistan’s majority-Muslim citizens have felt cut out of the move to offer fast track citizenship to only Afghan minorities, as much as they have by reports of anti-Muslim rhetoric and incidents of violence in India.
- Pandemic aid: The government must strive to ensure that its aid and assistance is broad-based, particularly during the novel coronavirus pandemic to centres outside the capital, even if some lie in areas held by the Taliban.
- Building Taliban’s opposition: India must also pursue the efforts to bridge the Ghani-Abdullah divide to avoid the collapse of the anti-Taliban front as it happened in 1996.
- Following up with the US: India should continue engaging with the U.S.’s Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to carry forward India’s “engagement” in the peace process.
- An understanding between Iran and the U.S. on Afghanistan is necessary for lasting peace as well, and India could play a mediatory role, as it did in order for the Chabahar project.
- Pause in Indo-Pak conflict: New Delhi should use the United Nations’s call for a pause in conflicts during the novel coronavirus pandemic, to ensure a hold on hostilities with Pakistan.
- Maintaining diplomatic presence: India’s diplomatic strength in Afghanistan should not appear to be in retreat just when it is needed the most.
- Talking with Taliban: The U.S.-Taliban talks have shown that it is necessary to come to the table for talks on Afghanistan’s future. For India, given its abiding interest in Afghanistan’s success and traditional warmth for its people, making that leap should be a bit easier.
Appoint special envoy: Above all, the government must consider the appointment of a special envoy for the peace process, as it has been done in the past, to deal with its efforts in Afghanistan.