India wades into Afghan peace talks

(Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov greeting Taliban officials at Moscow peace conference, November 2018) 

The Ministry of External Affairs spokesman’s remark on Thursday in New Delhi that “it is important that the presidential election in Afghanistan takes place as per the schedule” is the first major Indian comment on the current peace talks in Qatar between the United States and the Taliban.

Whether that was an off-the-cuff remark or not remains unclear, but if it has been a considered statement, it puts India at odds with the peace talks in Qatar, which is working toward commencing the intra-Afghan dialogue, forming an interim government in Kabul and declaring a nation-wide ceasefire. Arguably, India’s strong advocacy of the charade of a presidential election in Afghanistan at this juncture is tantamount to the debunking of what is happening at the Qatar talks.

The point is, the Indian stance is virtually identifying with the ‘rejectionist’ camp of Afghan opinion, which fears that the reconciliation with the Taliban will mean the end of the road for them. This camp principally consists of President Ashraf Ghani and his circle – his newfound associate Amrullah Saleh, in particular – who are justifiably nervous about their own political future if the peace talks at Qatar advance toward the formation of an interim government.

But why should India try to bolster their career prospects? It may create misperceptions that India has ulterior motives. Clearly, the conditions in Afghanistan do not allow the holding of the presidential election. Even if the election is held, its credibility will be in serious doubt. The result of the election is almost inevitably going to be hotly contested. Quite obviously, the recent parliamentary election tells a sordid story. The political legitimacy of the “victor” in any presidential election will remain highly suspect. Even Ghani’s government was formed 5 years ago only after protracted efforts by the US to work out a compromise formula of power sharing.

In fact, much of the present crisis in Afghanistan is to be directly attributed to the weak government in Kabul that lacked political legitimacy and popular support, and to its leadership that is widely perceived as an American concoction. What is the point in repeating such a futile experiment? As it is, Afghanistan is hopelessly fragmented and another Ghani as its next figurehead and another puppet regime in Kabul can only spell doom for the country.

The fact of the matter is that the Afghan government is not at all representative of the nation. The latest Russian initiative to convene a conference of the Taliban representatives and prominent Afghan politicians in Moscow next week underscores the political undercurrents in Afghanistan today. The Reuters has quoted a Russian official as saying, “Senior Taliban leaders and prominent Afghan politicians will travel to Moscow for a day-long summit. At this sensitive stage, it was best to not have Afghan government officials at the table.”

Interestingly, the Afghan personalities who may take part in the conference in Moscow on coming Tuesday include former President Hamid Karzai. Whatever might be the Russian motivations in taking such an initiative, it only highlights that Ghani’s camp is fast becoming irrelevant to any serious intra-Afghan dialogue involving the Taliban and other Afghan groups.

(Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi with Russian Special Representative on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, Islamabad, Jan 29, 2019)

It goes without saying that the Russian initiative is in tandem with Pakistan following the visit by the Russian special representative on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov to Islamabad on January 29. Ironically, Russia is facilitating the first round of intra-Afghan dialogue with Pakistan’s tacit support and Taliban’s readiness to participate in it. Ghani is not going to like that he has been bypassed and ignored.  But then, if the international community has not so far questioned his locus standii, it was out of decorum and/or courtesy, but a time has come when Russians obviously decided that enough is enough.

Ghani was entirely an American creation and he lacks a support base. His tactic is to gather around him a cabal of figures who, like him, also stand to lose in peace settlement. He may try to be a ‘spoiler’ but ultimately, he will be overtaken by events and cast aside. Simply put, he is of no more use to the Americans who will discard him sooner rather than later. The case of Saleh is equally pathetic. The American built up Saleh for certain specific assignments related to security and they may cut him loose once he ceases to be of use to them. Unsurprisingly, Ghani and Saleh are now left with no option but to blow the nationalist bugle to rally support among patriotic Afghans, but that won’t impress anybody – neither the Afghans nor the international community.

Why should India get embroiled in the shenanigans of the ‘rejectionist’ camp in Kabul? True, Modi government too would have a sense of ‘betrayal’ – that after having been the US’ loyal supporter in Afghanistan, India finds itself in a cul-de-sac. But the fault lies entirely with Delhi. The Modi government viewed Afghanistan through the prism of India-Pakistan tensions and Kashmir and the zero sum mindset has damaged Indian interests and brought about the current isolation.

Without doubt, President Trump intends to withdraw the troops from Afghanistan. And without American support, the roof will come crashing down on the head of Ghani, Saleh, et al, within no time. Delhi should be realistic about its capabilities and, more importantly, be mindful of its limitations. Does India have the grit and the resources to swim against the current?

Only fools rush in where angels fear to tread. And it’s worse still if India were to join hands in a conspiracy to “mainstream”  the Taliban by offering them some positions in the next government. For, the Taliban will never accept such a proposition and the hardliners in Delhi will only end up being seen by them as a foreign power interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, which of course, will negatively impact Indian interests in the long term.

Let bygones be bygones. Delhi should not compound the folly. The prudent thing will be to refrain from being a ‘spoiler’ at this sensitive juncture. Let the peace talks proceed ahead. What is needed on India’s part is strategic patience. Its Manichean fear that Pakistan is about to conquer Kabul has no basis. Pakistan knows Afghans only too well not to harbor any such illusions.

On the other hand, Afghanistan is India’s neighbor and there is abiding goodwill toward our country on the part of the Afghan people. A new beginning is always possible and India can safeguard its core interests by building bridges with the new regime.

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