A New Chapter in Afghanistan

Published in India Today on 25 April, 2021

In October 2001, when US Special Forces and CIA operatives went into Afghanistan with the express objective of removing Taliban and dismantling Al-Qaeda, could anyone have predicted that 20 years later, the US would still be militarily engaged and debating its choices?

It is this stark realisation that made President Joe Biden announce on 14 April that “it is time to end the forever war in Afghanistan,” and that all US soldiers would leave before 11 September this year. Yet, the harsh reality is that this may wind up US’s war in Afghanistan, but for the Afghans, their endless war shows no sign of ending.

Initially, Biden was critical of the arbitrary deadline of 1 May negotiated in the Doha Agreement by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, saying “it was not a very solidly negotiated deal.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasised “a responsible withdrawal” and NSA Jake Sullivan assured that the Doha deal would be reviewed to see if the Taliban was delivering on its assurances “to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with Afghan government and other stakeholders.”

After weeks of hectic diplomacy, it was clear that the original flaws of the year-old Doha agreement could not be fixed. It may have been sold to the world as a ‘peace deal’ but for the Taliban, it was a ‘US withdrawal deal’ under which they had stopped targeting US troops and in turn, the US was supposed to leave by 1 May. For the Taliban, a ceasefire was an outcome of the intra-Afghan talks and their continuing military pressure was part of strengthening their bargaining position.

Biden is the fourth US president to deal with the Afghan war and was determined not to pass the legacy on to his successor. His deadline is as arbitrary as Trump’s, only more symbolic. The key change was made clear in Biden’s interview to CBS that if the Taliban returned, “the US bore zero responsibility for it.” In short, the Afghans were responsible for their future and the US was not providing any guarantees.

This is perfectly consistent with the long held Indian position of supporting “an Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled” peace process. Why then are we so perturbed by the impending US departure? India’s geography will ensure our presence though our role will undergo changes. US leaves because it can India stays because it belongs.

At the 2001 Bonn Conference, India was invited because it had been a key supporter (along with Russia and Iran) of the Northern Alliance that had emerged as an influential player, following the Taliban’s ouster. During the last twenty years, India’s economic cooperation programme has earned it the distinction of being Afghanistan’s preferred development partner. We may have relied on ‘soft power’ for two decades but we need to remember that it is not the only instrument in the ‘smart power’ tool-kit.

The common perception that with the return of the Taliban, India will be marginalised, is an oversimplification. It is true that India has been lethargic in pushing a visible engagement with the Taliban but its projects in every province of Afghanistan gives it the political heft and the linkages, cutting across ethnic and sectarian divides.

Nobody really knows if the Taliban’s ideology has changed but, as the Taliban themselves will soon realise, Afghanistan in 2021 is very different from the Afghanistan in 1990s when they came to power. Nearly three-fourths of Afghan population today is below 30 and though conservative, is used to living in an open society. There is a belated realisation among significant external partners like Iran, Russia and China that while they all pushed for US’ exit, their reservations about Taliban taking centre stage are only growing.

Speaking at the 2021 Raisina Dialogue last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif emphasised that “Taliban have to be engaged but on democratic and inclusive terms”. Russia reflected similar concerns and at the Moscow extended troika conference on 18 March, got US, Pakistan and China to sign on to a joint statement expressing a shared opposition to any restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

There are ample opportunities for India to explore new engagements but it needs to overcome its diffidence because its vision for Afghanistan is one shared by the large majority of the Afghan people.

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