why-is-india-getting-sidelined-in-afghan-peace-process

Context: Recently, the United Nations Secretariat held a meeting of the “6+2+1” group on regional efforts to support peace in Afghanistan.

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  • “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. 
  • India was conspicuous by its absence from the meeting.

Timeline of Afghanistan conflict and peace process:

US-led invasion

  • 2001 - US-led bombing of Afghanistan begins following the September 11 attacks on the United States. Anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces enter Kabul shortly afterwards.
  • Bonn agreement: The Bonn Agreement was signed on December 5, 2001 by representatives of several different anti-Taliban factions and political groups. 
    • Afghan groups agree to a deal in Bonn, Germany for interim government. Hamid Karzai is sworn in as head of an interim power-sharing government.
  • 2002 - Deployment of first contingent of foreign peacekeepers - the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) - marking the start of a protracted fight against the Taliban.

Elections

  • 2004 - Loya Jirga adopts a new constitution which provides for a strong presidency. In the Presidential elections, Hamid Karzai is declared the winner.
  • 2014 - The two rivals for the Afghan presidency, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, sign a power-sharing agreement, following a two-month audit of disputed election results. Ashraf Ghani is sworn in as president.

Nato ends combat mission

  • 2014 - NATO formally ends its 13-year combat mission in Afghanistan, handing over to Afghan forces. Despite the official end to Isaf's combat role, violence persists across much of the country, with 2014 said to be the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since 2001.
    • The London Conference on Afghanistan took place in December 2014, co-hosted by the governments of the UK and Afghanistan. It was convened to secure international support for Afghanistan’s development
  • 2015 - NATO-led follow-on mission "Resolute Support" gets underway, with some 12,000 personnel to provide further training and support for Afghan security forces.
  • 2017- Military stalemate between the US and Taliban in Afghanistan because the Taliban enjoys safe havens and secure sanctuaries in Pakistan. 
  • A three-way peace negotiation starts
    • First was the Doha track with the Taliban
    • A second was with Islamabad/Rawalpindi and 
    • The third was with Kabul to ensure that the Afghan government would accept the outcome. 
    • Taliban and Pakistan negotiated as a team. 
  • USA’s four objectives: a ceasefire, an intra-Afghan peace dialogue, cutting ties with terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda, and finally, U.S. troop withdrawal.

USA-Taliban pact signed:

  • 2020 - A pact is signed between the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the US”

Instances of India’s non participation in Afghan peace process:

  • In January 2010, India was invited to attend the “London Conference” on Afghanistan, but left out of the room during a crucial meeting that decided on opening talks with the Taliban.
  • In 2020, 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. 

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 stance in Afghanistan Peace Process: It has been firmly backing the Afghan government in Kabul headed by President Ashraf Ghani for a process led, controlled and owned by the Afghans. 

  • This comes against the backdrop of India’s belief that Pakistan wields considerable influence over the Taliban.
  • A Pakistan controlled pact will also directly threaten India’s interests in Jammu and Kashmir. Ever since the US-Taliban negotiations began, India has worked with the Ghani regime to strengthen its legitimacy so that it could not be compelled to accept an asymmetrical power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban.

India’s soft power engagements with Afghanistan: The building blocks of India’s goodwill are it’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.

  • India’s assistance of more than $3 billion in infrastructure 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, regardless of Pakistan’s attempts to undermine that position, particularly in the South. 
    • A $20 billion projected development expenditure of an alternate route through Chabahar.
    • India is expected to begin work on the $236 million Shahtoot Dam project on the Kabul River in Afghanistan.
  • Trade relations: The bilateral trade between India and Afghanistan is expected to more than double to reach USD 2 billion by 2020 with the opening of air cargo routes between the two countries.
  • Training manpower: Its support to the Afghan National Army, bureaucrats, doctors and other professionals for training in India.
  • India-built Zaranj-Delaram road in Afghanistan will connect to the Chabahar port via Milak. Indian investment in the port would serve as a link to Delaram-Zaranj road that India built in Afghanistan. Chabahar port would give New Delhi a base to position itself.
  • The Indian-built $290 million Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam, known earlier as the Salma Dam, in Afghanistan’s Herat province has reduced Kabul’s dependence on its neighbors for electricity and is irrigating around 75,000 hectares of land.

Concerns for India:

  • Exclusion from talks: The countries involved believe that a lasting solution in Afghanistan can be discussed without India in the room, 
  • 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.
  • India’s long standing policy of benign aloofness from the Afghan peace process has also been the biggest difficulty in India’s Afghan outreach. 
  • India’s ‘soft power’ projection may have also made India an irrelevant actor in the ‘hard power’ calculations currently underway between the practitioners of realpolitik among the US, Pakistan, China and Russia, and the Taliban.
  • Relying solely on the Ashraf Ghani govt.: It has had a two-fold effect: 
    • Its 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. 
  • 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.

Way forward:

  • 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: The conversation India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had with the U.S.’s Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad last week, where they discussed India’s “engagement” in the peace process, appears to open a window in that direction.
  • 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.

Just like the Ashraf Ghani regime, India has largely remained on the sidelines of the US-Taliban peace negotiations. It must play a role that befits its rising stature and ambitions in Asia. Outreach to the Taliban is thus overdue even though the road ahead is full of craters and ditches.