Context: Intra-Afghan peace talks to begin on September 12
- The talks follow the February 2020 US-Taliban agreement on the withdrawal of US troops.
- Afghan government is excluded from negotiations between the US and the Taliban.
- Afghan high council for national reconciliation will represent the govt position.
- The talks were to begin on March 10. But were held back due to disagreement over release 5,000 Taliban prisoners by Afghan govt.
Afghan talks: What will the discussions be on?
- Two main goals are a power-sharing settlement between the Afghan polity and the Taliban, and a ceasefire, the immediate question is which should come first.
- The Afghan government has said it wants a ceasefire first.
- It is doubtful the Taliban would agree to a truce first before getting what they want out of a political settlement. While in talks with the US, the Taliban continued violent attacks, leveraging these to underline their demands.
- What the Taliban want out of a political settlement is unclear. In the past, they have denounced democracy as a western imposition on their vision of Afghanistan. They have dropped several hints of a return to the Taliban-run Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan of 1996-2001. But they have signalled they may accept some of the democratic gains Afghanistan has made in the last two decades.
- The expectation is that the two sides should agree on an “inclusive” interim government that will be entrusted with hammering out the way forward.
- The Afghan government, a former Indian diplomat observed, “is entering the negotiations knowing that they are a death sentence on itself”. And while the US would like it done and dusted before President Donald Trump’s re-election bid in November, Ghani, who won a second term this year, would prefer to stretch it out until the US elections, hoping to get from a possible Biden White House the support that has not been forthcoming from Trump.
Who are representing the two sides?
- Both sides have 21 persons each in their negotiating teams. The Taliban’s lead negotiator is Sheikh Abdul Hakim, a scholar-cleric from the non-military side who was the “chief justice” of the Taliban judicial system, and is seen as more acceptable to all factions within the Taliban, as well as to Pakistan. He is also said to be close to the Supreme Leader Hibataullah Akhundzada. Though Hakim’s name carries the Haqqani appellation in some mentions, he does not belong to the Haqqani Network. His unifying role will be crucial.
- The dynamics between Pakistan and some of the key Taliban members are also important. The Pakistan Army and ISI played key roles in facilitating the US-Taliban agreement.
What is India’s stake in all this?
- New Delhi has not been involved in the process since it began two years ago, and while it has backed the Afghan government for an “Afghan owned and Afghan led peace process”, it has been marginal to even regional discussions. Partly, this is due to India’s diffidence about engaging in a process in which it sees Pakistan playing to install the Taliban as its proxy in Kabul, as the Taliban have links with terrorist groups that target India and Indian interests in Afghanistan. While India sees itself on shared ground with Iran on these concerns, Tehran had opened contacts with the Taliban.
- India’s other big worry is that the vacuum created by the exit of the US may be filled by China.
- Wary of the Taliban’s links with Uighur radicals in the Afghan-bordering Xinjiang Autonomous Region, India is concerned that Beijing may use its proximity to Pakistan to insulate this vulnerable territory from these links. It has also begun building ties with the Taliban.
- At this moment in India-China relations, the possibility of an enhanced Chinese presence in Afghanistan, in combination with Pakistan and the Taliban, is worrying Afghan watchers in India.
- In April 2020, the United Nations Secretariat held a meeting of what it calls the “6+2+1” group on regional efforts to support peace in Afghanistan, a group that includes six neighbouring countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; global players the United States and Russia, and Afghanistan itself.
- India was conspicuous by its absence from the meeting, given its historical and strategic ties with Afghanistan.
- 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.
- Three major projects, the Afghan Parliament, the Zaranj-Delaram Highway, and the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam (Salma dam), along with hundreds of small development projects (of schools, hospitals and water projects) have cemented India’s position in Afghan hearts nationwide.