India has been relegated to the status of a reactive power in Afghanistan.
As U.S. efforts to depart Afghanistan gather momentum, Indian foreign policy is coming to terms with a new reality, one which will be shaped by others and to which New Delhi has no choice but to respond robustly. The discussions between U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives have reached a critical juncture with the two sides signalling that at least for now they are ready to end the fighting, thereby bringing the curtains down on a 17-year-old war. The Trump administration is serious about its intent to reach a modus vivendi with the Taliban leadership and has also been able to put some pressure on Pakistan, which has acted as a spoiler in the past.
A framework agreement that talks of a phased withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for a Taliban commitment that it would sever its ties to global terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda seems to have put enough on the table to satisfy both sides at least for the time being, thereby allowing the process to move forward more than such attempts have allowed in the past.
Clearly problems lie ahead with this arrangement. Enforcing promises made by the Taliban to see American forces off from the battlefield is just one of the issues that will haunt the process. The United States, at least publicly, is still insisting that the Taliban agree to a ceasefire as well as undertake negotiations directly with the Afghan government in Kabul before the American forces depart. The Taliban, of course, have been consistent in their stand that they don’t recognize the Ghani government. It would be a huge challenge for Washington to ensure that the Ghani government, which U.S. forces have so far tried to support and is deemed as the legitimate government by the international community, is an important stakeholder in the ensuing peace process. The sheer optics of the United States, which for the better part of the two decades has been fighting the Taliban, now recognizing the insurgent group as a legitimate interlocutor while ignoring the claims of the Ghani government can be quite damaging for broader American foreign and security policy. Any peace process in Afghanistan will have to be much more broad-based than mere engagement with the Taliban and at this point it is now clear how the U.S. intends to achieve this.
In some ways, the integration of the Taliban into the Afghan political mainstream is a decision that should be made by the Afghans themselves. If the United States continues to show that it is in a hurry to leave Afghanistan, then the Taliban would be more than happy to wait them out. They would say all the nice things in the world to see the United States leave and then would wait to see the Afghan government crumble without the supporting security and economic umbrella provided by Washington. While the Taliban’s return to power is not a given, chaos is the most likely outcome. It is for this reason that Khalilzad is encouraging “the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government” and asserting that it is for “Afghans to find a solution to this stalemate on intra-Afghan dialogue.”
It is also not readily evident that Trump’s desire to bring the troops back from Afghanistan quickly is shared across the U.S. polity. Senators from across party lines in the United States recently backed an amendment opposing the U.S. president’s plan to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan with a decisive majority, underlining that the troop withdrawal could allow the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group and al-Qaeda to regroup and destabilize not only Afghanistan but the Middle East.
But at the end of the day, despite all the problems, it is for the United States to decide how and under what conditions it would like to leave Afghanistan. Other countries can give their opinions but it is the sovereign right of the United States to take a call on its military deployments abroad. India has been briefed by Khalilzad on the outcome of the six consecutive days of intensive talks with Taliban last week. And New Delhi has reportedly demonstrated an understanding of the rationale of American troop withdrawal even as it has insisted that any peace agreement should safeguard Afghanistan’s current “political and constitutional structure.”
India’s support for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled” peace process is a longstanding one even as it has been trying to engage with a range of stakeholders in Afghanistan, including the Taliban in recent times. Despite continuing to officially dissociate itself from the Taliban, New Delhi has underlined that it “will participate in all format of talks that could bring about peace and security the region.” India had sent retired officials to the Russia-led peace talks in November 2018 where the Taliban representatives were also present.
India has a range of interests to protect in Afghanistan and for far too long New Delhi’s reliance on Washington’s role as a security provider has been its major vulnerability. It is indeed understandable for India to make its discomfort with the current American posture known to Washington. But it is quite extraordinary to complain that America is leaving India in the lurch. The Indian strategic community’s hectoring about American policy is hypocritical as the same community had almost unanimously concluded long back that India should not have a stronger military role in Afghanistan. It was always known that at some point American appetite for this war in Afghanistan will decline.
If Afghanistan was marginal for Indian security interests, then India should have made only marginal investments in the country. But if the assessment was that Afghanistan is going to be critical for Indian interests in the region and beyond, then New Delhi should have been better prepared by now to protect its significant investments there. By not thinking cogently about India’s own endgame in Afghanistan, India has ended up being reactive to what others are doing. That could easily have been avoided.