India should stop looking at Afghanistan through the Pakistan prism and be a major contributor in the development of peace and prosperity in the country.
By Sumeer Bhasin*
Commentary on the deal signed between the U.S. and Taliban in Doha on February 29 has focused on the Geopolitical Great Game, Afghanistan’s political elite and the Taliban. But most of it has failed to factor in the views and aspirations of the largest constituency of Afghanistan – the country’s youth, constituting roughly 75% of the population, which will not simply disappear or abandon the nation.
The Afghan people have suffered gravely for over four decades from the impact of the Geopolitical Great Game, internal power struggles and ethnic rivalries. A reduction in violence, if sustained, leading to a political settlement and potential ceasefire, will be a big relief and achievement for all Afghans, the youth included.
India has been the foremost earner of the Afghan people’s goodwill. As one of the largest donors, with close to $3 billion in aid, it has effectively contributed to Afghanistan’s development through various programmes – from building infrastructure to training Afghans. Historically too, it has had ties through trade and culture while Afghan youth relate to Bollywood and cricket.
India should leverage this goodwill and play a proactive role in Afghanistan’s capacity-building and economic development. It is the predominant regional partner, which can offer investment and a big market for not only Afghan fruits and dry fruits, but also for the vast untapped mineral resources of Afghanistan.
Most importantly, India should proactively engage with the Taliban leadership in assisting in the development of Afghanistan. The Taliban also realise that the majority of Afghans aspire for a moderate Islamic nation, which is peaceful, prosperous and connected to the region and the world. India can be a major strategic partner to Afghanistan in achieving this objective.
India should stop looking at Afghanistan through the Pakistan prism as one of the major effects of this settlement will be that the Taliban will no longer be dependent on Pakistan for safe havens. Pakistan’s coercive influence on it will, therefore, be greatly reduced. India can build bridges with the Pashtuns and actually become a credible mediator between the Pashtuns in the south and east and India’s old friends in the north, the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks. India can also leverage its relationship with the U.S. and Russia, who are all involved as guarantors to the settlement.
The moderate elements in the Taliban want India to be a strategic partner as counter-balance to the influence of Pakistan.
India must keep in mind that once the Taliban, which is predominantly Pashtun, stops fighting, it will need to establish its stand on the Pashtun Tahafuz (PT), a human rights movement launched by the Pashtuns in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This, and the contentious issue of the Durand Line, dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan, will have to be watched closely as Pashtuns on both sides have, thus far, had unencumbered movement. Besides, the Pashtun way of life is older than Islam, and is still predominantly prevalent amongst the Pashtun tribes, or Pathans, as they are known in India.
As for the foreign fighters in Afghanistan and their links with India-centric terrorist organisations, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Taliban have never said that they want to take their jihad outside Afghanistan nor have they any plans to do so. This may have been just as the Inter-Services Intelligence desired and designed so that these groups don’t start a turf war amongst themselves.
*About the author: Sumeer Bhasin is an independent geopolitical analyst and Afghanistan expert.
Source: This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
 White House, ‘President Donald J. Trump Is Taking A Historic Step To Achieve Peace In Afghanistan And Bring Our Troops Home’, Government of United States, 29 February 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-taking-historic-step-achieve-peace-afghanistan-bring-troops-home/