Packs Americana and India’s Afghanistan Redux
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad. (Photo: AP)
By Chayanika Saxena

Packs Americana and India’s Afghanistan Redux

Feb. 11, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Amongst the many peace processes that Afghanistan has seen in the recent years, the one that has been making the maximum noise is led by the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad. Reflecting both the urgency and the desperation with which America, if not on the whole, wants its “boys back home”, the intensity and extensity of talks that are being conducted are telling in their own ways.

Firstly, while geared towards (re)establishing peace in Afghanistan, it might as well prove to be the case that these negotiations do not turn out to be an end-in-all. Simply put, these negotiations could, perhaps, be more about negotiating a negotiation than about negotiating a peace deal. Having said that, the catalyzing role of these negotiations, if any, cannot and should not be discounted.

The second aspect about these negotiations relates to the haste with which they are being conducted, and which is not expected to have a very enabling impact on the peace process on the whole. In fact, taking a shot at the rushed American efforts, the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani criticized this hurry as reflecting a “false sense of urgency”, which will not result in “enduring and inclusive peace”. This six-month challenge has been described as “too short” even by the Taliban.

Thirdly, in this rush to declare Afghanistan’s conflicts solved/settled, the American eagerness has betrayed that one actor whose role in this process is critical – the government of Afghanistan. For all intents and purposes, the government of Afghanistan has been a reduced to the status of a crowd in a cricket stadium – one that is not on the field but which occasionally cheers or jeers.

Not that it has not tried its bit of nationalist posturing by inducting two anti-Taliban, pro-military solution individuals into the cabinet, but it does not seem to have gone the full distance. And now that one of them – Amrullah Saleh, the acting interior minister – has already left his position to be a part of the upcoming Presidential elections, it is safe to say that this signaling was largely symbolic, and maybe even superficial. On the other hand, the Taliban is bolder than it was before, controlling and/or contesting more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s territory. In light of this, America’s direct engagement with the Taliban not only dents the credibility of the formal institutions of Afghanistan, but it will also have an impact on other stakeholders. One of the countries that finds itself on a loose wicket is India with its fading relevance in the peace process.

The Afghan Redux for India

Resisted and even harmed, India’s presence in Afghanistan had faced international and regional opposition from the get-go. Seen in this light, the situation that India is facing today is hardly any different from what it has generally been. Of late, India’s role in Afghanistan has not only been dismissed as secondary but its contributions were ridiculed by none other than the President of the US, Donald Trump, himself. In a televised press coverage on January 3, 2019, Trump slighted at India’s development assistance by mocking India’s contribution, which he thinks has not gone beyond a library, as “equivalent of what the US spends in five hours”. While both Indians and Afghans rebutted the American jibe, it appears that India’s decision to stick to its no-boots-on-the-ground policy has ruffled a lot of feathers in the US.

Whether India will toe the line or not will be determined by a combination of factors, most of which, unfortunately, are not in its control.

Khalilzad’s touch-and-go trip to New Delhi does not amount to much, especially, in the current backdrop. Although what happens behind the closed doors often stays behind them, unless one is Trump, but if the official account of the American representative is anything to go by, his maiden trip to India in such capacity did not have much to say. There was little substance in his tweet apart from a reiteration of the Indo-American “long-standing commitment to…achieve enduring peace” in Afghanistan. This was in addition to him thanking the warm Indian hospitality, but that was about it.

A major dismissal of India’s importance to the Afghan peace process came not only from Pakistan but also from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Alejandro Alvargonzález, Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy, was quoted saying that the role of Pakistan is of “utmost importance to the peace process” and that while India has a “prominent place in Afghanistan” but so do “hundreds of others”. It appeared as though the Assistant Secretary was suggesting that India cannot be made a party to the talks just because Pakistan is there.

For India, its dilemmas concerning Afghanistan are coming back to haunt it. Reiterating its support for an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace process, the indifference with which India has been treated in the current rounds of negotiations only rivals the neglect that has been meted out to the Afghan government. While the sting of imposed inconsequentiality for the two actors is incomparable, India has been sounded a lot of “what-ifs” in direct and indirect ways. That it should be a part of the “bandwagon” has often been said and now that the murmurs are coming from within the country, can this be seen as India’s changing bid for relevance?

In a way, India’s decision to take part in the Moscow Consultations and share the table with the Taliban, even if non-officially, looks like its attempt to stay in the loop. Moreover, its interest in an “inclusive” peace deal suggests its official hesitation to engage with the Taliban might blunt but only if the government of Afghanistan goes ahead with this engagement first. After all, having reiterated its support for a deal that is thoroughly Afghan, India’s strategic initiative in the context of the ongoing talks is critically dependent on what Afghanistan does and does not do. Reading the Indian dilemma right, the former President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai provided a discursive escape from this sticky situation. He said that “if India wants to talk to Taliban as part of the Afghan people and mediate, it can. India is a friend of Afghanistan or the Afghan people. The Taliban are Afghans so India is in contact with the government of Afghanistan, India is in contact with other Afghan people, social groups and if they can be in contact with the Taliban then why not”. In fact, Tehran, in a bold statement too extended its good offices to India should it want to talk to the Taliban.

Whether India will toe the line or not will be determined by a combination of factors, most of which, unfortunately, are not in its control. The dictates of realpolitik suggest that India should not be wary of keeping all its options open. This does not mean that India has to go back on its moral commitments or affect its other strategic requirements. Rather, it is time to change the plot and the language in which it is articulated, for as Karzai aptly noted, it is the “the totality of Afghanistan is what India should be looking at and supporting” and the Taliban, who are Afghans, cannot be left behind.

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