Peace, still a pipe-dream in Afghanistan

Sanjay Kapoor | Updated on October 20, 2019 Published on October 20, 2019

US’ ambivalence on the role of Taliban and Pakistan’s unease over India’s involvement in the region are set to complicate matters

The results of the much-delayed presidential elections in Afghanistan will be known soon. If some believe that this could bring to an end the confusion about who governs this strife-torn country and that peace would return, they could go horribly wrong.

First, the contestation over how these elections are being fought promises an ugly spat between candidates once the results are declared. Second, it remains to be seen how the US-brokered mediation with the Taliban plays out in the business of forming the government within the country, and in the equation with neighbours — including India. All of this could all engulf Afghanistan in a fresh round of violence.

In an election with a very low turnout — only about one-third of the eligible voters cast their franchise — there are disagreements on how many votes should be counted and whether the Taliban has the necessary support to be included in the emerging interim order that the US Special Representative Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad is trying to put together.

For the record, President Ashraf Ghani is being challenged by his former CEO, Abdullah Abdullah, who has claimed a win after the polls. The plain truth, though, is that the outcome will depend on the US, which has reintroduced itself in the project of putting together an interim government.

US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalizad, who has been negotiating with different stakeholders besides Doha-based Taliban leaders, had thrashed out a deal to be signed by US President Donald Trump before the Afghan elections. The so-called deal, contrary to what the Taliban says, did not envisage complete withdrawal of some 7,000-10,000 US troops from Afghanistan.

The US were to maintain some bases and a little troop strength. It would have also meant bringing in many mercenaries or security consultants to look after their assets. The Pakistan army was also to be brought on board to ensure that there was no threat to US interests from their proxies. The Taliban was to be part of the new interim arrangement and given some key ministries before it was formalised in an election at a later date. Some Afghans believe that the Taliban’s strength is overstated.

Pact with Taliban

Before an agreement could be signed at Camp David ahead of the Afghan elections with the black-robed Talibanis, President Donald Trump called off talks due to the killing of an American soldier in Kabul. He claimed that Taliban had not kept its part of their agreement. This is not the only reason. The Taliban failed to make a commitment that their cadres will not operate with Al-Qaeda, an outfit that precedes the emergence of the Islamic State. For long, US Intel bosses had used Al-Qaeda and the Taliban interchangeably, but in recent years they realised — this was articulated aggressively by the Russians too — that the Taliban was an indigenous movement with objectives very different from that of the Islamic State.

The Indian government was cognisant of the fact that conversation between the Taliban and the US was still going on, and Trump’s announcement that the deal with the Taliban was off was met with quiet satisfaction in New Delhi. The US government, through Ambassador Khalizad, had been keen that India engage with the Taliban, but New Delhi scrupulously stayed away, except for a brief interaction former Indian diplomats Amar Sinha and TCA Raghavan had with the outfit during the Moscow talks earlier this year.

India’s distance

New Delhi perceives the Taliban as a Pakistani creation, a fact that finds resonance in declamations of many senior Afghan leaders, including former President Hamid Karzai and Interior Minister Amrullah Saleh, who is the running mate of President Ashraf Ghani.

The fact that the US under President Trump saw merit in dealing with the Taliban has changed the way this rag-tag army is perceived. Populated largely by Pashtun refugees that grew up in the camps in and around Peshawar, they have shown fighting prowess and daring.

The fact that the Taliban was interested in peace and ready to negotiate was first apparent when the leadership agreed to a ceasefire during Eid last year. For the first time in many years, not a bullet was fired. Talibani fighters were seen singing and dancing — practices usually scoffed at by their religious leadership. Since then, the narrative that Taliban wants peace has been aggressively sold to India too.

India, which has deep ties with Afghanistan, has invested about $3 billion in various public assets like the Parliament building, roads, dams and schools. US President Trump, who wants Indian boots on the ground, has ridiculed New Delhi for investing in libraries and but not doing much to militarily stabilise the war-ravaged country.

Scrupulously, India has stayed away from intervening in Afghanistan and limited itself to a development role. Also, it has found a point of convergence with Afghanistan in Chabahar, a port in Southeast Iran. Chabahar allows India and Afghanistan to sidestep Pakistan and explore new trade routes to Central Asia. For decades, Pakistan has denied India the overland route to Central Asia.

The major worry for India has been protection of its considerable assets in Afghanistan. After the US invasion in 2001, India has been riding on US policy in this difficult country. Pakistan has been resentful of India’s influence and demanded from Washington that it rein in New Delhi.

Claiming a need for “strategic depth” (which meant Pakistan leadership can escape to Afghanistan if it loses to India, and hence it wants a friendly government in Kabul), Pakistan has sought guarantees from the US to find a solution to Kashmir, so that its border with the South Asian neighbour remains quiet and it can continue fighting terror originating from Afghanistan.

The Pakistan factor

During the height of violence around the Durand Line — which separates Pakistan and Afghanistan — the US had brokered a quiet deal which saw Pakistan deploy more troops on its western border. India, too, had scaled its presence. Much is changing now. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised to abandon the concept of strategic depth, but the country is capable of ratcheting up tension in Afghanistan over Kashmir — despite Pakistan’s financial crisis and increased scrutiny from the Financial Action Task Force that watches terror funding.

The manner in which Pakistan has been campaigning against India for abrogating Article 370 suggests that future events in Afghanistan will depend on a host of factors — which includes the US and how Pakistan perceives its problems with its neighbours.

The writer is Editor, Hardnews magazine

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Published on October 20, 2019
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