By Kabir Taneja
The so-called US–Taliban “peace” deal signed between US Special Representative Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban on 29 February is hanging by a thread as both Kabul and Washington DC significantly diverge on the issue of how to deal with the Taliban. Over the past week, the terror strike on a Kabul hospital’s maternity ward, killing women and newborns, has divided the administration of US President Donald Trump and the government of President Ashraf Ghani further. The US blamed IS Khorasan (IS-K) for it, while Kabul blamed the Taliban.
Washington meanwhile has remained committed to the withdrawal of its troops, and amidst the ensuing violence and political distancing between Ghani and Trump. multiple layers of the Afghan conflict are coming to the front. The attack on a Gurudwara in Kabul on 25 March killing 25 people, claimed by the IS-K, underscored the fact that Indian interests targeted by Pakistan backed entities were now going to be under a larger magnifying glass as Pakistan pushes more for the US–Taliban deal to materialise and institutionalise. The US withdrawal comes as a fire sale for Pakistan’s views on its neighbours on both sides of its border.
The Afghan theatre is changing fast with a rapid US withdrawal inevitable as the country moves towards elections later this year and battles the COVID-19 pandemic as well — both prickly domestic political issues. However, the increasing chaos is coming as good news for the Taliban to double down on their image as a group staying true to their words on the Doha deal, and preparing to step into a larger mainstreamed political role in Kabul tomorrow when the opportunity arises.
Even before the February deal, Taliban had managed to clock significant air miles, travelling from Oslo to Beijing, raking up a public posture that it seeks peace and an end to a 19-year long conflict. The outlier in this effort since the Doha negotiations began has been New Delhi, with great stakes in the Afghanistan story, but finding itself in between a rock and a hard place as far as engaging with the Taliban is concerned.
Whether to talk to the Taliban or not is not a new conundrum in India’s security discussions, and opinions have been divided not just in public discourse but the power centres as well. Indian diplomacy has kept its distance, with no official representation attending the Taliban talks hosted by Moscow in November 2018, with two former Indian ambassadors attending instead. At the official signing of the US–Taliban deal, India’s ambassador in Doha attended at the invitation of the Qatari government, but as did many other diplomats and international representatives. It was a theatrical event.
India has maintained that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Taliban, and that it views the group under a single umbrella. While diplomatically this has been a long-standing policy, there have been digressions from other top-level officials. In January 2019 at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi, the then Indian Army Chief and now Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, advocated for talks without any preconditions with the Taliban, adding that India cannot be left out in this regard. This comment was made when Ambassador Khalilzad was in the capital to brief the top brass of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
The Taliban itself, in its current emboldened state as it stands on the cusp of a large US withdrawal interestingly has been engaging with India one-way through the media. In the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Taliban welcomed Indian aid given to Afghanistan, continuing its narrative from earlier where in May 2019 it had said that it looks for positive relations with all of the neighbouring countries including India. Interestingly, Taliban spokesperson, Mohammed Suhail Shaheen, also appeared in an online conversation with the Indian think tank Global Counter Terrorism Council to discuss the US–Taliban agreement, where Shaheen reiterated the group’s long-standing position that it looks at the government of President Ashraf Ghani as illegitimate, a government that New Delhi backs as part of the country’s democratically elected parliament. To maintain a counter-balance from the Pakistan side, Taliban’s chief negotiator Abbas Stanikzai in an interview to Radio Pakistan said that India has “always played a negative role” and “always supported traitors” in Afghanistan. In further statements, he has reportedly also said that the Taliban is ready for talks with New Delhi if India “reviews its current policies” and plays an “effective and active role” in the Afghan peace process and reconstruction. Of course, the Taliban’s critical views on India can be traced back to the latter’s support of the Northern Alliance and Ahmad Shah Masood in the 1990s that fought a defensive war against the Taliban.
This has often translated into attacks on Indian interests in the country. From the 2005 kidnapping and murder of Indian engineer Maniappan Raman Kutty to the kidnapping of seven Indian engineers in 2018, one of whom was released in March 2019, and three others in October 2019 in exchange for Taliban prisoners is a reminder that Indian presence in the country has always come with strings attached, specifically for the Taliban.
New Delhi has engaged clandestinely with certain sections of the Taliban in the past, correctly riding the wave that not all Taliban factions take orders and money from Pakistan, and internal divisions in a multi-layered insurgency are not unheard of. Perhaps there is no better time than today to witness this, as Kabul absorbs multiple attacks amidst the US–Taliban deal, intra-Afghan negotiations and the recently concluded political tug-of-war between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah on the top. While many attacks are blamed on IS-K (factions within which are also known to have connections with Pakistan), it is believed that Taliban dissenters also promote such false-flag attacks in attempts to derail a deal where they may be held captive to American demands, in theory and on paper, which remains unacceptable to some.
The process of negotiations with the Taliban was long, starting with the group opening its office in Qatar in 2013. Multiple levels of talks ensued since with the US, China, Russia, European states, all chipping in, except India, officially. The nascent stages of these developments was when ideally India needed to have a policy shift if it wanted one on how to approach the Taliban, and sense the urgency at which others were broaching the subject, specifically the US. Today, the American desperation to leave Afghanistan under the Trump administration before the upcoming elections in November has only emboldened the Taliban, with attacks where the group refutes its role finding mention in official US State Department statements, pushing Kabul to not allow such violence to derail the deal and its mechanisms. The crisis here is that while India worked on development of Afghanistan under the security blanket of the US military presence, that blanket is now also providing shade to the Taliban itself, and this perhaps not only caught New Delhi by surprise, but also puts it at odds with US thinking.
A lot of debate on India’s take on the Taliban of course discounts the fact of what happens behind close doors, and there were instances in the mid 2010s when there was a push to deal with certain sections of the Taliban. However, much has changed since. At the moment it makes little sense for New Delhi to engage the Taliban directly in public on any platform, and India needs to strengthen its support for the political systems of Kabul. While talks with the Taliban is a much debated topic, there are perhaps more important ones for New Delhi to think about regarding its Afghan policy. The US exit will also mean till a large extent a US financial exit, which could pose a grave threat to Afghanistan’s fragile democratic process and institutions. New Delhi today requires a deeper look on how to address the Afghanistan question, and develop a realists’ strategic approach to the issue that puts at the forefront a bolder and robust infusion of capacity to aid the Afghan state.
To have conducive engagements with the Taliban would have required a deeper niche within the Afghan war over the years, which could then be built upon publicly now. Today, the Taliban will view any talks with India with it having a stronger position on the table. The window when outreach could have been done clandestinely was shut long ago. For the time being, if the Taliban take the mechanism of the intra-Afghan dialogue seriously, this remains the only realistic platform for Indian officials to sit across the table from them for dialogue amidst multiple stakeholders that India also has good relations with, building a collaborative strength to meet the Taliban.