While conflicts are inherently troublesome, what happens when (the quest for) peace takes the same shape? Today, the situation in Afghanistan betrays the same feeling. As insecurity spirals in the country, civilian casualties are on the rise, territory is being lost to different insurgent groups, the economy does not inspire confidence and politics lacks public legitimacy, reconciling the various antagonists in this four-decade-long conflict looks more elusive than ever. With the government sitting in Kabul having crossed its technical expiry date, an emboldened Taliban wanting to call the shots and the political opposition concerting for peace elsewhere, peace in itself has become a matter of conflict in this war-fatigued nation.
The overthrowing of the Taliban in 2001 was believed, or at least, hoped to be the beginning of the end of the conflict in Afghanistan. However, this has hardly been the case. The Bonn Process of 2001, which was to restore political stability and promote reconciliation in Afghanistan, began on a faulty premise by keeping the major antagonists, the Taliban, out of the talks. Realizing the futility of this lopsided effort at reconciliation, the international resistance to talking to the Taliban slowly wilted in favor of reaching out to them. Ever since then, attempts have been made to bring Taliban to the table of negotiation, with the most recent American efforts led by the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad.
However, the situation in Afghanistan is far from being inspiring. For every step that is taken forward, two are taken back because of reasons that are national and extra-national at once. International agreement on Afghanistan is particularly flimsy even as there appears to be a superficial agreement over the need to bring an end to the conflict in the country. Regionally too, the dynamics are not particularly disposed in favor of restoration of peace in Afghanistan. While there is no overt opposition to the demand of peace in Afghanistan, the external actors do not want to settle for any kind of peace; they want their version of peace to prevail. The same holds true for the actors internal to this country. Peace, then, is not being negotiated in Afghanistan for its own sake, but for what it can do. It is being treated as an instrument whose purpose is to serve other goals, which may not necessarily be for the public good.
In these circumstances when peace, which has already been prioritized over other social issues such as justice, is merely a means to vested ends, what promise would the ongoing talks (or the ones to come) hold for the masses of Afghanistan? Overall, the situation as it stands today is a real-world extension of the old adage, “too many cooks, spoil the broth”. Peace in Afghanistan continues to appear distant not only as a result of the new challenges that have emerged but also for the lack of coherence among the actors who have assumed for themselves the role of restoring peace in the country.
Too Many Eyes, No Common Vision
Afghanistan’s political history, at least in modern times, has been replete with different, competing characters. Where the regional power centers within Afghanistan often challenged the preponderance of those ruling in the center, externally, this country has been an arena for many “Great Games”. Stretched into the present times, these internal and external rivalries continue to bedevil this country. Thus, even as the rivalries of the past and the present may be qualitatively different from each other, the essence of their fight is the same, and which is to retain their pre-eminence in and over Afghanistan.
Internally, the state-of-affairs in Afghanistan is far from being the kind that was hoped to be established in the aftermath of the Bonn Conference. Democratic it may be, the institutions that were meant to bolster this regime of governance in the country are still fledgling. Politically, those at the helm have often been accused of nepotism, corruption and dereliction of duty. One does not have to scour through history to find evidence of such malpractices; the present times have enough of such material. Take for instance the incumbent National Unity Government (NUG) itself, which continues to run beyond its constitutionally mandated expiry date.
Since its founding in September 2014, NUG stood for everything else except unity. Where its premise was based on an ethnic compromise in the hope that the coming together of the self-styled leaders of the Pashtun and Tajik community would foster cooperation between them, the vague provisions on which this government was made and the unsatisfactory, massively delayed implementation of some of the key tenets of the political agreement has only widened rifts within the political order of Afghanistan. Ethnic faultlines have deepened and their exploitation for vested benefits are being constantly seen. Political loyalties in Afghanistan have been pretentiously nationalistic and in the garb of which, almost every single self-styled leader of any and every community has only bolstered their own political prospects, and that too often at the cost of the very same communities they claim to represent.
Rifts within the national government were, and still are, too evident to be missed. Right from the Chief Executive Officer to the first Vice-president, the Ghilzai Pashtun President, Ashraf Ghani has been accused of usurping power and nepotism on different occasions. Those witnessing such churnings, especially the educated youth in the major cities of Afghanistan and the minorities, have taken to the streets to protest what they believe is sheer nepotism within the government. Right from protesting an alleged change in the route of an electricity transmission project (TUTAP) to those demanding better security for women on the streets, the incumbent government has drawn public flak for its inability to administer rule of law effectively and deliver the basic services expected of it.
The fact that India has signaled its interest in throwing its weight behind any peace process that could bring an end to the conflict in Afghanistan is a significant departure from its initial stance.
Where the domestic constituencies remain unsatisfied with the performance of the present government, the political opposition has not done much to provide a robust alternative to it. Instead, the different actors, including the ones who had once been in power in the past are trying to bypass the government and stake ownership in the peace process. With the Taliban remains steadfast in its refusal to talk to the Government on Afghanistan, which, for it, is both “illegitimate” and “impotent”, those in the opposition are trying to make the most of this resistance by interacting with this insurgent group and each other at different places. Apart from meeting in Moscow with the Taliban earlier this year, members of the political opposition met most recently in Pakistan’s Bhurban for the “Lahore Process” (22-23 June 2019).
Currently, almost 70% of Afghanistan’s territory is said to be at stake with minimal or no control of the state extending over it. While estimates like these are accepted and refuted in the same breath, with the same ferocity, one cannot deny that the reach of the state of Afghanistan and the practice of constitutionally sanctioned rule of law is found to be wanting throughout the country. The capital of the country, Kabul, itself is riven with strategic and political insecurities. Social indices are almost stagnating while a crisis of political legitimacy is clearly felt among the public at large. Important towns, such as Kunduz and Ghazni, have fallen — although later regained — to the Taliban in the midst of constant political bickering and the strengthening of parallel power structures. Added to this, the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS Khorasan) is increasing along with the potency and heinousness of its attacks, spelling out more troubles for an already imperiled country. In these circumstances, efforts to resolve the spiraling crisis in the country through Khalilzad-led “negotiations to negotiate” could prove to be another stale prescription.
What’s in Store for India?
Although India’s role in Afghanistan has been ridiculed by none other than the President of the US Donald Trump himself, it is worth recalling here that India is the largest South Asian donor in Afghanistan and has contributed USD 3 billion to it to date. The developmental assistance provided by India to Afghanistan has been appreciated thoroughly for its tangibility and effectiveness. Apart from small-scale and localized contributions that continue to be made, India has been at the forefront of helping Afghanistan to make its democracy more sustainable and enhance the state’s capacity to deliver basic goods and services to the domestic populace. To this effect, India has built the Parliament in Kabul as well as restored Salma Dam in Herat as part of its efforts to help rebuild Afghanistan.
However, despite the evident contributions that have been made by India, it continues to be marginalized in discussions over restoring peace in Afghanistan. Be it the now-defunct Quadrilateral Coordination Group or the current talks held by Khalilzad, India’s minimal presence, which borders on absence at times, is a matter of concern.
Maintaining that peace must be restored in Afghanistan through processes that are owned, controlled and led by Afghans, India often rallied its support behind the government in power. Ideally, while this should be the norm and the case, however, in a multi-actor setting like that of Afghanistan, this amounted to placing all eggs in one basket. The Indian reluctance to engage with the Taliban officially (its presence in the Moscow Peace Process in 2018 was officially “non-official”) meant that it could not leverage important connections within this organization itself. Recall that the current lead negotiator for the Taliban, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, had once been trained at the Indian Military Academy. Similarly, by refusing to engage with Taliban formally, India missed quite a few buses and was sidelined further during the crucial years of transition in the international mandate between 2010 and 2011. President Ashraf Ghani’s NUG, on its part too, had placed India in the fifth orbit of its five-circle foreign policy in the initial years after its term started.
Given these setbacks, it would be desirable to expand India’s outreach to actors who are not the government but who, nonetheless, are Afghans. In light of this realization, it seems, the former External Affairs Minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj enunciated a (discursive) shift in India’s view on the Afghan peace process. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Foreign Ministers’ meet in Bishkek in May 2019, Swaraj was noted as saying that “India stands committed to any process, which can help Afghanistan emerge as a united, peaceful, secure, stable, inclusive and economically vibrant nation, with guaranteed gender and human rights”. The fact that India has signaled its interest in throwing its weight behind any peace process that could bring an end to the conflict in Afghanistan is a significant departure from its initial stance. Furthermore, by extending a line of credit to support the fledgling military forces of Afghanistan and by sounding off an oblique warning (of sorts) to Khalilzad about the continuation of India’s economic support, India seems to be in full mood to up the ante. Will it be able to elbow its way into the Afghan peace process? Time will tell.