By Chayanika Saxena
Amongst the diverse on-going negotiations on Afghanistan, the one led by the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been making the most noise. Reflecting both the urgency and the desperation with which the United States, if not the entire coalition, wants its ‘boys back home‘, the intensity and extensity of talks that are being conducted are telling in their own ways.
Firstly, while geared towards (re) establishing peace in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that these negotiations will in turn provide any lasting solution. At best, they might deliver what could be considered a conducive environment for further negotiations, which could possibly and eventually lead to peace. Simply put, they are more about negotiating a negotiation, than about negotiating peace. Nevertheless, their catalysing potential, if any, should not be discounted.
A second aspect relates to the haste with which these negotiations are being pushed forward, a factor that is not expected to have an enabling impact on the peace process. Khalilzad may have realised that his latest watch does not give him an advantage over time – something that the Taliban has credibly demonstrated by waiting the Americans out – but the rush to conclude a peace deal before the slated Presidential elections of 2019 is ill conceived.
In fact, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani criticised this haste as reflecting a “false sense of urgency”, which will not result in “enduring and inclusive peace.” This ‘six-month challenge’ has been described as “too short” a timeframe even by the Taliban.
Thirdly, in this rush to declare Afghanistan’s conflicts solved/settled, the American eagerness betrays the one actor whose role in this process is critical, the Government of Afghanistan. For all intents and purposes, Kabul has been reduced to the status of a crowd in a cricket stadium – not part of the game but occasionally cheering or jeering.
On the other hand, the Taliban has been enormously emboldened, even as it controls or contests more than 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory. In the light of these developments, the American efforts to talk to the Taliban, apparently at any cost, cannot, in the long run, result in a peace deal that will be either sustainable or beneficial for most of the stakeholders.
India’s presence in Afghanistan has faced international and regional opposition from the beginning, and the current circumstances do not alter the broad environment of New Delhi’s engagement with Kabul.
India’s role in Afghanistan has long been dismissed as secondary, and none other than U.S. President Donald Trump has now ridiculed the country’s contributions. In a televised statement on January 3, 2019, Trump mocked India’s development assistance as “equivalent of what the U.S. spends in five hours”. While both Indians and Afghans rebutted the American jibe, it appears that India’s decision to stick to its consistent and sagacious no-boots-on-the-ground policy has ruffled a lot of feathers in Washington.
Khalilzad’s touch-and-go trip to New Delhi on January 9, 2019, amounts to little. Although what happened behind closed doors has remained behind them, the official account of the American representative’s maiden trip to India in his present capacity is of little significance. There was little substance in his tweet, apart from a reiteration of cliché of Indo-American “long-standing commitment to… achieve enduring peace” in Afghanistan, and an expression of gratitude for “the warm Indian hospitality”.
Significantly, a dismissal of India’s role in the Afghan peace process came not only from Pakistan but also from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Alejandro Alvargonzález, NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy, stated that Pakistan’s role was of “utmost importance to the peace process”, while India has a “prominent place in Afghanistan” but so do “hundreds of others”.
The Assistant Secretary appeared to suggest that India cannot be made a party to the talks just because Pakistan is there. In effect, the most violent and disruptive players in Afghanistan are, as in the past, being given centrality in the ‘peace process’, to the progressive exclusion of those whose interests lie in an enduring peace – principally Kabul, as well as India.
The Indian dilemma in Afghanistan seems to have come full circle. New Delhi’s reiteration of support for an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace process, has been treated with an indifference in the current rounds of negotiations, only rivalled by the neglect that has been meted out to the Afghan Government.
The sting of imposed inconsequentiality for the two actors appears to be an effort to push them on to the US-led “bandwagon“. But, this is a vehicle that doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere.