The current peace process in Afghanistan is at a crucial juncture. The Afghan government has not been able to consolidate its power even over the region it directly controls. Taliban, which presently controls a third of Afghanistan, is rapidly gaining ground. And the US is set to withdraw all troops by September 11, 2021 – the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Afghanistan has a key role to play in regional stability, and a lot is at stake for a country like India, which seeks to become a regional hegemon.
Evolution of US presence in Afghanistan
After 9/11, and after its refusal to hand over al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, the Bush administration declared war on the Taliban. The NATO coalition troops dismantled the Taliban and established a transitional government, and the al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders fled to Pakistan.
Even though in 2008, US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld announced that major military operations in Afghanistan were over, the situation has still remained volatile. Today, after almost twenty years, the war in Afghanistan is the US’ longest – which could achieve neither peace nor stability.
The Obama administration initiated talks with the Taliban in 2015. After that, the Trump administration appointed a special envoy (Zalmay Khalilzad) to deal with the Taliban directly. This culminated in the Doha agreement.
Agreements at Doha
|Taliban||US, Kabul Govt.|
|It will reduce violence||The US to withdraw all troops by May 2021 (extended by Biden administration to September. 2021)|
|It will join intra-Afghan peace talks||Remove sanctions on Taliban leaders|
|It will resist use of Afghan soil by terrorist groups (al-Qaeda and IS-K)||The withdrawal was conditional on the Taliban holding its commitments (not anymore)|
|Release of prisoners – by both Afghan government and Taliban||–|
Currently, the peace process is frozen. As Harsh V. Pant suggests that the situation represents ‘more process, less peace’. While the Taliban has reduced hostilities against foreign troops, violent attacks against the Afghan forces continue. The US exit has put the ball in the court of regional powers to manage the upcoming military vacuum.
Role of regional powers
Pakistan has gained salience following the US withdrawal. Its goal is to gain ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan. Pakistan aims to check the Indian influence in Afghanistan and find a legitimate role for the Taliban in Afghan politics. It would prefer that the Taliban be accommodated in power through negotiations and peaceful settlements.
If the Taliban becomes violent, it would lack international acceptability. Pakistan would have to not only shoulder the cost of the ensuing civil war but also deal with a conflict-ridden western border and refugees (similar to the Afghan crisis in the 1990s). There is also the possibility of the rise in anti-Pak terror organisations like the Tehrik-i-Taliban.
However, it is not clear if Pakistan has capacity to mould the post-American outcome in Afghanistan. A partnership with Beijing might help address the power deficit.
The resultant vacuum after American withdrawal implies an increase in Chinese strategic and economic footprint, especially as an ally of Pakistan. Any instability in Afghanistan will bear an impact on the CPEC as well as the situation in the Xinjiang region (by Talibani support to Uighur refugees and insurgents).
Besides the above reasons, the present situation has reinforced the Chinese conviction that the US is in terminal decline. And it has given the Chinese establishment the confidence to project itself as an alternative to the Western model of international governance.
For Russia, the US exit represents a full circle after its own defeat at the hands of US-backed Mujahideen in the 1990s. It has played the role of a peacemaker by organising the Moscow Conference, the Troika and the Troika-Plus meetings. The US exit will imply a more nuanced role for Russia, a significant regional power.
India is an important factor in the developmental space. According to the External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, India has the goal of ‘double peace’ – peace within Afghanistan as well as in the region.
The triad of challenges before Indian foreign policy is
- Dealing with the Taliban is against the previously held policy that ‘talks and terror do not go together.’
- A lack of direct physical access
- Afghan instability’s impact on Kashmir and its youth
The Way Ahead
The Indian foreign policy response is a combination of continuity and change.
Like India has always iterated, it has to ensure that the peace process remains ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled. It has to continue extending support to state institutions. And it also has to expand its developmental assistance to the nation, like building the new Shahdoot dam, Bamyan – Mazar-e-Shariff road construction and ensuring vaccine supply to deal with the current pandemic.
However, in the upcoming environment, particularly when the USA is withdrawing from the region, old techniques are not sufficient. India needs to evolve in its approach while dealing with Afghanistan.
The policy priorities for India should be to protect its investments, to limit Pakistan’s strategic depth and to ensure that anti-India terror groups do not get Talibani support
Intensifying engagement with all Afghan groups, including Taliban, will represent a realist acknowledgement that the Taliban would play a critical role in Afghan polity in the future.
China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) represents an important forum to discuss post-American challenges in Afghanistan. An active role in SCO deliberations can help India find effective regional partners to secure its interests. However, considering the current geopolitical scenario, it should temper its hopes for a collective regional solution.
Past experiences of one-party regimes (communist government, Mujahideen or Taliban) have failed to stabilise the country or sustain themselves. As Rakesh Sood, a former diplomat, suggests, the current warring parties (Kabul, Taliban and Pakistan) should focus on power-sharing and political settlement to prevent Afghanistan from falling into another cycle of violence and destruction. The collective vision should be to build lasting power structures and institutions in Afghanistan. This will help Afghanistan to survive now and, if possible, grow eventually.