Macron’s Re-election, A Victory With Challenges

Published in the Hindu on April 27, 2022

Last Sunday, French voters gave President Emmanuel Macron his second term and Europe heaved a collective sigh of relief. Though Mr. Macron scored a convincing victory over far-right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen, his victory margin diminished compared to the 2017 run-off, from 66% to 58.5%, while Ms. Le Pen improved her score from 34% to 41.5%, reflecting the changing character of French politics. Nevertheless, given that only two popularly elected presidents have won second terms (Francois Mitterand in 1988 and Jacques Chirac in 2002), Mr. Macron has reason to feel chuffed. European Union leaders, facing twin challenges of the Russian war in Ukraine and a tepid recovery from COVID-19, have enthusiastically welcomed Mr. Macron’s victory given Ms Le Pen overt Euroscepticism.

A changing politics

France’s two-step voting process means that in the first round, voters express their real preferences; in the second round, with the field narrowed to two, they reject the one they dislike more.

At the beginning of the campaign in February, there were a dozen candidates but by end-March, most were fizzling out. The first round, held on April 10, showed the decimation of the two traditional parties that have ruled France since the 1960s, the centre-right Republicans and the centre-left Socialists. Republican candidate Valerie Pecresse, had been part of Mr. Chirac’s team and also Higher Education minister with Mr. Nicholas Sarkozy, managed a 4.8% vote share while Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris since 2016, got a mere 1.7%. From the days of Socialist presidents like Mitterand and Hollande, and Republican presidents like Sarkozy, Chirac and Valery Giscard d’Estaing, this was a rout.

These two parties have been losing ground, from a collective 56% of the vote in the first round in 2012, to 27% in 2017 when Mr. Macron emerged on the scene and captured the imagination of voters as a pro-Europe, business friendly, forward looking liberal. In 2017, this enabled him to redefine the Centrist vote, successfully poaching from both the Republican and Socialist bases.

Five years later, Mr. Macron had a record to defend and counter the image of being a pro-rich, aloof and elitist president. His response to the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests lacked empathy. Ms. Le Pen capitalised on this by seeking to appear more human and approachable, a single mother and a cat lover.

A rough campaign

In the first round on April 10, Mr. Macron led with 27.8%, followed by Ms. Le Pen with 23.1% and left-wing populist Jean Luc Melenchon (France Unbowed) with a credible 21.9%. Extreme-right-wing journalist turned candidate Eric Zemmour whose presence helped Ms. Le Pen appear relatively moderate also got 7% vote. Other mainstream candidates Jean Lasalle, formerly MoDem (Democratic Movement) and Yannick Jadot (Greens) only managed 3.1% and 4.6% respectively. The fact that far-right and far-left parties accounted for 58% of the vote in the first round reflects the growing polarisation in domestic French politics. Centre-left voters switched from Ms. Hidalgo and Mr. Jadot (Greens) to Melenchon and centre-right from Ms. Pecresse to Mr. Macron.

The slow rightward drift in French politics has sharpened since the terrorist attacks in 2015 and the consequent debates on identity and laicite (French version of secularism) emerged as key themes in the early weeks till the Ukraine war and rising cost of living assumed priority.

Mr. Zemmour’s campaign exploited the ‘great replacement’ theory, (originally propounded by Renault Camus) – that non-white, non-Christian and non-French are gradually replacing white Christian French population. Mr. Zemmour grew his base by asking young French people if they were willing to live as a minority in the land of their ancestors. Ms. Le Pen, conscious of the need to retain her base lest they drifted to Zemmour, promised a ban on the hijab (headscarf) and a constitutional amendment that would distinguish between “native born French” and “others” for access to education, housing and other social benefits and restricting citizenship to only those who have “earned it and fully assimilated.”

Mr. Macron was late to join the campaign, thinking that he could ensure support by appearing presidential, involved with geopolitics of war in Ukraine. Since December when tensions began rising, he has had nearly two dozen telephone conversations with President Vladimir Putin, visited Moscow and Kyiv and had multiple exchanges with NATO and EU leaders. He filed his candidature on March 3, a day before the deadline and spent little time on the campaign trail before the first round. His poll ratings slipped from 30% in early March by five points leading to a strategy shift.

It is only in April that Mr. Macron realised that the “progressive liberal centrist” platform that had delivered victory in 2017 was no longer working. The field was dominated either by a utopian extremism of the Left or a nationalist extremism bordering on racism on the Right. Mr. Macron began to talk about building a ‘dam’ to preserve the Centre. To shift the debate from ‘identity’, he promised full employment in five years, tax cuts for households and small businesses and softened his stand on raising the retirement age from 62 years to 65, spreading it over a nine-year timeframe.

For the second round, the debate turned personal. Mr. Macron highlighted Ms. Le Pen’s ties with Mr. Putin, describing him as her ‘banker’, called her a ‘climate sceptic’, blamed her policy as ‘spelling the end of the EU’ and made the election a ‘referendum on secularism and Europe’. Ms. Le Pen blamed him for ignoring the rising cost of food and fuel and declining pensions, sought a ‘Europe of nations’ rather than an EU, called him ‘a climate hypocrite’, and the election a referendum on “Macron or France’.

The obstacles, from June

Having secured his second term, Mr. Macron urgently needs to douse the flames of polarisation. The 72% turnout on Sunday is the lowest in a presidential run-off since 1969. In addition, of the 34.5 million votes cast, the three million blanks or spoilt ballots reflect disenchantment with both candidates. Mr. Melenchon has declared that Macron’s presidency ‘is floating in a sea of abstentions and blank or null ballots’. Over a third of the voters didn’t vote for Mr. Macron and many left-leaning voters only did so because they hated the far-right Ms. Le Pen more.

National Assembly elections are due in June and if the Left take the Assembly, Melenchon could become prime minister; a prospect of co-habitation that ensures policy gridlock. In such a scenario, polarisation will only increase and Mr. Macron’s centrist experiment would be a short-lived reprieve from the rightward shift.

That is why at his victory speech at the foot of the Eiffel tower, Mr. Macron struck a conciliatory note, thanking those who helped defeat Ms. Le Pen and “promising to be a president for all.”

Relief in Europe, India

Such was the concern in Europe about the election that in an unprecedented move, Portugese and Spanish Prime Ministers Antonio Costa and Pedro Sanchez and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz co-authored an op-ed in Le Monde on April 21, urging French voters to reject Ms. Le Pen. The congratulatory messages pouring in from western capitals reflect relief as a Le Pen victory would have severely damaged western unity, at a critical moment in Europe.

India too has reason to be happy with Mr. Macron’s victory. India and France have enjoyed a solid strategic partnership, established in 1998 that has expanded to cover cooperation in defence, nuclear and space sectors, climate issues and renewables, cyber security and counter-terrorism. French presence in the Indo-Pacific has prodded the EU too to shift towards an Indo-Pacific strategy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be traveling to Germany and Denmark on a bilateral visit in the first week of May. It provides a welcome opportunity to spend a day in Paris to congratulate Mr. Macron and impart new momentum to the relationship.

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Repairing The Complex India-Nepal Relationship

Published in the Hindu on April 7, 2021

Nepal Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, paid a long-awaited visit to India last week (April 1-3). Sworn in July 2021, this was his first bilateral visit, in keeping with tradition. The outcome might appear modest but what is significant is that both sides effectively managed to steer clear of divisive issues. At 75, Mr. Deuba is a political veteran and first became prime minister in 1995. In his fifth stint, he is no stranger to the complex relationship between the two countries.

Positive outcomes

Among the highlights was the operationalisation of the 35 km cross-border rail link from Jayanagar (Bihar) to Kurtha. Two further phases will extend it to Bijalpura and Bardibas. The Rs. 787 crore project had been ready for over a year but operationalisation was held up because of necessary administrative requirements in Nepal to set up a company that could recruit staff. The Konkan Railways Corporation will provide the necessary technical support, initially.

The second project that was inaugurated was the 90 km long 132 kV double circuit transmission line connecting Tila (Solukhumbu) to Mirchaiya (Siraha) close to the Indian border. Constructed with an Exim Bank concessional loan of Rs 200 crores, there are a dozen hydro-electric projects planned in the Solu corridor for which the Nepal Electricity Authority has concluded PPAs of 325 MW.

In addition, agreements providing technical cooperation in the railway sector, Nepal’s induction into the International Solar Alliance, and between Indian Oil and Nepal Oil on ensuring regular supplies of petroleum products were also signed.

The Mahakali Treaty, signed in 1996 during Mr. Deuba’s first visit as Prime Minister, covers Sarada and Tanakpur barrages as well as the 6700 MW (approximately) Pancheshwar Multipurpose project. Both sides have agreed to push for an early finalisation of the DPR. An ambitious $7 billion project, it needs political will to move it forward. The Joint Vision Statement on Power Sector Cooperation recognises the opportunities for joint development of power generation projects, together with cross border transmission linkages and coordination between the national grids; it can provide the momentum.

China’s growing role

On February 27, Mr. Deuba pushed through the ratification of the agreement with the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), despite reservations of his coalition partners, the Maoists and the UML (Unified-Socialist). The agreement provides a grant of $500 million for building 318 kms of high voltage transmission lines along with sub-stations and maintenance of 300 kms of the East-West highway. The Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu had actively sought to sabotage the agreement by planting stories that it was part of the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at containing China. The agreement had been signed in 2017, during Mr. Deuba’s fourth stint as prime minister and was awaiting ratification. Together with the Pancheshwar project, it provides a welcome synergy.

During the Monarchy, China maintained a link with the Palace and its concerns were primarily related to keeping tabs on the Tibetan refugee community. With the abolition of the monarchy, China has shifted attention to the political parties as also to institutions like the Army and Armed Police Force and considers Nepal an important element in its growing South Asian footprint.

In recent years, India’s relations with Nepal have had both ‘highs’ and ‘lows’. Prime Minister Modi has often spoken of the “neighbourhood first” policy. He started with a highly successful visit in August 2014 but then saw the relationship take a nosedive in 2015, with India first getting blamed for interfering in the constitution drafting process and then for an “unofficial blockade” that generated widespread resentment against India. It reinforced the notion that Nepali nationalism and anti-Indianism were two sides of the same coin that Mr. Deuba’s predecessor, Mr. K P Sharma Oli, exploited successfully.

In 2016, Mr. Oli visited Beijing to negotiate an Agreement on Transit and Transportation. Three years later, a Protocol was concluded with China providing access to four sea-ports and three land ports. The first ever visit of the Chinese Defence Minister took place in March 2017, followed by joint military exercises a month later. A military grant of $32 million was also announced.

China has overtaken India as the largest source of FDI and in 2019, President Xi Jinping visited Kathmandu. Annual development assistance was hiked to $120 million. Today, China is also engaged with airport expansion projects at Pokhara and Lumbini. Rather than compete with China, India needs to up its own game.

The growing Chinese presence means that India cannot afford to let issues linger but reach out actively to find resolution.

Managing differences

Over the years, a number of differences have emerged between the two countries that need attention. The political narrative has changed in both countries and these issues can no longer be brushed under the carpet or subsumed by invoking a ‘special relationship’ based on ties of a shared culture, language and religion. Part of the success of Mr. Deuba’s visit was that none of the differences were allowed to dominate the visit. Yet, to build upon the positive mood, it is necessary these issues be discussed, behind closed doors and at Track 2 and Track 1.5 channels.

As one of the oldest bonds, the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship was originally sought by the Nepali authorities in 1949 to continue the special links they had with British India. It provides for an open border and right to work for Nepali nationals in India.  However, it is today viewed as a sign of an unequal relationship, and an Indian imposition. The idea of revising and updating it has found mention in Joint Statements since the mid-1990s. It has been discussed sporadically, but in a desultory manner, by the Foreign Secretaries beginning in 1997 and even at the ministerial level at the 2014 Joint Commission.  

In 2016, an eight-member Eminent Persons Group was set up to discuss it. The report is available with both governments but a perception has been created in Kathmandu that it be formally presented to the two governments. As long as it is clearly understood that this only a report by well-intentioned experts in their individual capacity and not binding on governments, it should be possible for the two Foreign Ministers to acknowledge it publicly. It could even be made public to kickstart Track 2 conversations.

Demonetisation is another irritant. In November 2016, India withdrew Rs 15.44 trillion of high value (Rs. 1000 and Rs. 500) currency notes. Today, over Rs 15.3 trillion has been returned in the form of fresh currency. Yet, many Nepali nationals who were legally entitled to hold Rs 25000 of Indian currency (given that Nepali rupee is pegged to the Indian rupee) were left high and dry. The Nepal Rashtra Bank, which is the central bank, holds Rs. 7 crores and estimates of public holdings are Rs. 500 crores. After more than five years, it should certainly be possible to resolve this to mutual satisfaction.

On the boundaries

In 2019, Mr. Oli, facing domestic opposition within his party, needed a distraction and found one in the Kalapani boundary issue. These boundaries had been fixed in 1816 by the British, and India inherited the areas over which the British had exercised territorial control in 1947. While 98% of the India-Nepal boundary was demarcated, two areas, Susta and Kalapani had remained pending. In November 2019, India had issued new maps following the division of the State of Jammu and Kashmir Union Territories, Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. Though the new Indian map did not affect the India-Nepal boundary in any material way, Mr. Oli expanded the Kalapani area dispute. By whipping up nationalist sentiment, he got a new map of Nepal endorsed by the legislature through a constitutional amendment. While it did not alter the situation on the ground, it soured relations with India and added a new and emotive irritant.

The need today is to avoid rhetoric on territorial nationalism and lay the groundwork for a quiet dialogue where both sides display sensitivity as they explore what is feasible. India needs to be a sensitive and generous partner for the “neighbourhood first” policy to take root.  

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‘Bharat Natyam’ in Indian Diplomacy

Published in the Hindu on March 16. 2022

The late Jyotindra Nath Dixit (Mani Dixit to his many friends and admirers) took over as Foreign Secretary on December 1, 1991. He retired 26 months later, on January 31, 1994 – 58 years was then the retirement age.

Republics and Moscow

Those were times of change. On December 25, 1991, Soviet Union’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, the flag of USSR was lowered for the last time at the Kremlin and the following day, USSR was formally dissolved. In its place, 15 republics emerged. India accepted the challenge and set about opening new embassies to build new relationships with these countries in Central Asia, South Caucasus and Central Europe while maintaining its traditional ties with Moscow.

In January 1992, India and Israel established full diplomatic relations, announcing the opening of embassies and exchanging ambassadors for the first time, opening the door to a relationship that has blossomed into one of India’s most significant strategic partnerships in the last three decades.

Path to the nuclear deal

On January 31, 1992, Prime Minister P V Narsimha Rao participated in the first ever meeting of the UN Security Council at summit level (India was a member in 1991-92), presided by British Prime Minister John Major. On the side-lines, Mr. Rao had a bilateral meeting with U.S. President George H. W. Bush where the two leaders decided that in the changing world, India and the U.S. needed to have frank exchanges on issues that had divided them during the Cold War; the issue identified was ‘nuclear proliferation and disarmament’; the first meeting took place during Mr. Dixit’s visit to Washington two months later, sowing the seeds of the dialogue that continued through ups and downs, leading to the path-breaking India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in 2008.

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on January 28, 1992, Prime Minister Rao’s ‘Look East’ policy began to take shape as India and ASEAN embarked on a sectoral-dialogue partnership. By end-1995, this had matured into a full-dialogue partnership and in 1996, India joined the security dialogue platform – ASEAN Regional Forum. Since 2002, the relationship has strengthened further with the annual India-ASEAN summit.

On China and Taiwan

Following intense negotiations, during Mr. Rao’s visit to China in September 1993, the two sides initiated the first of the many confidence-building-measures, notably the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas. It laid the foundation of the relationship for two decades.

Simultaneously, India and Taiwan negotiated to open Economic and Cultural Centres; Taiwan opened its office first in Mumbai in 1992 before shifting to Delhi while Indian established the India-Taipei Association office in 1995.

The above gives an idea of how India was responding to the changes taking place around us and in the wider world. As a junior colleague who had the privilege of working closely with Mr. Dixit during these years, I often heard him engage patiently with foreign diplomats and respond to questions from inquisitive journalists seeking to make sense of the about-turns in Indian foreign policy.

Relaxing as he puffed on his pipe, in a private aside to his friends, he would tell us, “In Indian diplomacy, sometimes, you need to do a bit of Bharat Natyam”. The point was simple – you may appear in different forms to others but after you have first secured your interests.

UN vote dynamics

In recent weeks, the debates and discussions in Indian media and TV talk-shows about India’s stand on the Ukraine conflict and India’s votes in the UN Security Council and General Assembly are an appropriate moment to reflect on the Dixit principle.

Evidently, the Indian government has chosen to ‘abstain’, based on an assessment of its core interests. However, there is a cardinal principle associated with Security Council votes on issues in such charged times. A ‘for’ or ‘against’ vote is intended to convey a blunt message of ‘support’ or ‘opposition’. It is a black or white choice, and once exercised, the messaging is clear.

On the other hand, ‘abstention’ takes us into a grey zone because it is the middle path. It can either be seen as fence-sitting (which is a sign of helplessness) or create space for diplomatic manoeuvre (which is a successful outcome). In the Ukraine instance – the West should feel satisfied that India ‘abstained’ because they perhaps expected us to oppose their draft proposals given our traditional ties with Russia while Russia should also feel satisfied at our ‘abstention’ because they perhaps expected us to give in to Western persuasion.

The second outcome is a positive one but to appear in different forms at the same time, we need to revive the kind of Bharat Natyam that Mr. Dixit used so effectively to navigate those turbulent times, even as he helped set the course for Indian foreign policy three decades ago.

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The Return of the Taliban

Published in India Today issue dt 26 July, 2021

The American exit from Bagram, their Afghan airbase, on July 2 is the enduring symbol of the US withdrawal from its ‘longest war’. The very next day, 13 districts fell to the Taliban, and the momentum hasn’t slowed. Yet the process of US disengagement was set in motion nearly a decade ago. In February 2011, addressing the Asia Society, Hillary Clinton (then Secretary of State) reflected the policy shift when the preconditions for talks with the Taliban – renouncing violence and laying down arms, accepting the Afghan constitution and breaking ties with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, were converted into talk outcomes.

Pakistan’s decade long investment in providing safe haven and sanctuary to the Taliban was finally paying off. The next goal was ensuring Taliban’s legitimacy, something the regime had lacked in the 1990s because only three countries (Pakistan, UAE and Saudi Arabia) recognised it. Legitimisation process began with the establishment of the Doha office in 2013, followed by the Pakistan-initiated Quadrilateral Coordination Group talks (the US, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Taliban) and the Kabul, Heart of Asia and Moscow processes. All through, the US limited its role to a facilitator for the ‘Afghan led and owned’ peace process.

The breakthrough came when the Trump administration initiated direct talks with the Taliban, appointing ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. He began by setting out four objectives – a ceasefire, cutting links with Al Qaeda, IS and other terrorist groups, intra-Afghan peace talks and withdrawal of foreign forces, underlining that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. However, he had no Plan B, and the Taliban called Khalilzad’s bluff. Eventually, the US accepted the Taliban/ISI Plan A – a timebound unconditional US withdrawal in return for safe passage. Further, Taliban also enhanced their legitimacy at the expense of the Kabul government which was pressured by the US into releasing some 5,000 Taliban insurgents in its custody.

The 2020 Doha Agreement was neither Afghan-led or owned but received unanimous endorsement of the UN Security Council. Perhaps just as well that it was signed on February 29 for by the time its anniversary comes around in 2024, its ignominious end will be history.

President Joe Biden had long believed that US needed to extricate itself from the unending counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, limiting its role to counter-terrorism. On April 14, when he declared 9/11 as the deadline for completing the US withdrawal, the Taliban controlled 76 districts; today, the number stands closer to 220. Even after these Taliban gains, Biden has maintained that ‘US is not into nation-building’ and “it is the Afghan peoples’ right and responsibility to decide their future”.

Factions in the Taliban

Now that the US exit is a reality, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China may be recalling the old saying – be careful what you wish for – as they gear up to a new challenge of how to persuade the Taliban against overplaying their military hand and to accept power sharing?

Whether or not they succeed depends on the Taliban – how much they have changed and whether they are as cohesive and unified as they were under Mullah Omar in the 1990s. The disclosure in 2015 that Mullah Omar was dead (he had died in 2013) led to an internal power tussle. Mullah Akhtar Mansour (Alizai Pashtun) won out over Mullah Omar’s son Mullah Yaqub (Hotaki Pashtun). Mansour brought in a couple of Tajik and Uzbek faces to broadbase the Rehbari Shura while stepping-up attacks in Afghanistan to gain acceptance by the local commanders. However, within a year, he was killed in a US drone attack.

In 2016, Mullah Haibatullah (a Noorzai from Panjwai) took over, this time with two deputies, ISI favourite Sirajuddin Haqqani (a Zadran from Paktia and son of Jalaluddin Haqqani), managing the Peshawar shura and Mullah Yaqub who was backed by Qayyum Zakir, involved with the drug trade, and Ibrahim Sadar, the Helmand based commander carrying more weight in the southern provinces. Reports indicate that he is favourably inclined for talks.  

Opposition comes from Haqqani who has linkages with the other groups operating in the northern provinces. These include 500 strong Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Other elements include the IS-Khorasan and the Pakistan based groups (TTP, LeT, JeM, al-Badr, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Lashkar-e-Islam). How the loyalties and allegiances of these groups function on the ground is unclear.

In addition, Iran has a battle hardened Hazara Shia unit constituting the Syria-returned Fatemiyoun brigade, built up by Gen Ismail Qaani who has succeeded Qasim Soleimani as the Al Quds commander to defend Hazarajat, if necessary.

A third grouping that has gained prominence is the Doha based Taliban under Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader, co-founder of the Taliban and married to Mullah Omar’s sister. The Doha group has managed to get their families over and as the public face of the Taliban, are more inclined to a negotiated settlement.

All groups are happy as long as the military option keeps yielding results but who will call the shots when it comes to establishing governance structures and negotiating a power sharing arrangement? The latter also depends on whether the Kabul regime can present a unified front and whether Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China can prevail upon the Taliban’s fighting units. Estimates of Taliban strength run to around 60,000 whereas the Afghan security forces are over 300,000. However, whether the latter can keep their morale and maintain the integrity of their chain of command are questions that depend on the Kabul leadership which has spent last two years sniping at each other.

The last meeting of the extended-troika (US, China, Russia and Pakistan) in Moscow on March 18 recalled the UN Security Council resolution of last March that they “do not support the return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, though they have been displayed no initiative since. However, recent visits by Taliban delegations to Tehran and Moscow and the meetings in Dushanbe and Tashkent appear to be attempts at judging how receptive the Taliban are to resuming the intra-Afghan talks that have been in limbo for months and lowering the violence levels in Afghanistan. In a June 22 op-ed in the Washington Post, Pakistan PM Imran Khan wrote, “We oppose any military takeover of Afghanistan, which will lead only to decades of civil war, as the Taliban cannot win over whole of the country, and yet must be included in any government for it to succeed”.

Compared to other external actors, India’s leverage is limited. There are three reasons – geography, in not sharing a border; limited resources, both financial and military; and third, India was late in realising that since 2013, the mainstreaming of Taliban was letting Pakistan expand its security space in the region. Instead of sending out feelers to the Taliban, India chose to find comfort in the mantra of ‘Afghan-led Afghan-owned peace process’.  

According to senior Qatari official Mutlaq bin Majed al Qahtani, Indian officials have recently been in discreet contact with Taliban. However, as the old saying goes, one doesn’t learn swimming by jumping into a flooded river. Also, FOMO cannot drive strategy. India’s strength is that it is perceived as a benign power with an influence that cuts across ethnic groups. But it lacks coercive power of the other actors.

The Taliban may or may not have changed, Pakistan may or may not exert the same influence, but Afghanistan has certainly changed in the last two decades. Nearly three-fourths of Afghan population is below 30 and used to living in a conservative but open society; 60% of the population enjoy internet access.

Developing options demands patient and sustained engagement across the board; putting all eggs in one basket is not a good position to be in. Distance can provide America the luxury of non-engagement but our history and geography dictate otherwise for us, especially given our hostile relations with Pakistan. Just as water finds its own level, the natural political dynamics of the region will assert itself gradually provided India chooses its partners well and is responsive to the changing dynamics.

During the 1990s, Taliban fighters aggravated the situation in Kashmir. Will they do it again? It depends on the degree of ISI control. If India develops direct links, we could explore an assurance like the Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen provided China regarding the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement). How credible such an assurance might be is an open question. The answer is to replace episodic engagement because the neighbourhood merits it.

The underlying strategic logic of the Zaranj-Delaram highway, Chahbahar port and the connectivity provided by the INSTC (International North-South Transport Corridor) to Afghanistan and Central Asia still holds and together with our natural partners, can help us navigate the uncertainties that lie ahead.

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Troubling Prospects In Afghanistan

Published in the Hindu on July 8, 2021

Last week, on Friday, USA handed over the Bagram airbase to the Afghan authorities, marking a symbolic end to its military presence, as US forces complete their withdrawal well ahead of the September 11 deadline, announced by American President Joe Biden on April 14. A familiar air of uncertainty surrounds Kabul as the Afghans ponder over the future of their land, ravaged by conflict for nearly 50 years. Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours are now faced with a new challenge – how to persuade the Taliban against overplaying their military hand?

A costly misadventure

Could anyone have predicted when the US commenced its military intervention in Afghanistan in October 2001 that it would get embroiled in an endless war for 20 years and to exit safely, it would have to negotiate with the Taliban, the same entity that it went in to punish?

It has been a costly lesson. The war effort has cost $ 980 billion, over 2400 US soldiers (plus 1144 allied troops) and 3800 private military contractors have lost their lives. It also spent $143 billion on reconstruction; about $90 billion went for the Afghan army, police and other security forces, $36 billion for governance and economic development activities (the rest of the international community contributed an equivalent amount) and the balance on counter-narcotics and humanitarian relief works.

Yet, the real price has been paid by the Afghans. The 20-year war has claimed the lives of nearly 50000 Afghan civilians and nearly 70000 Afghan security forces (a majority during last seven years); add to it another 60000 Afghan Taliban, and the scale of the Afghan human loss becomes evident.

There have been gains too. In 2001, there were 900000 boys in school. Today, eight million children attend school and one-third are girls. Literacy is up from 12% in 2002 to 35%; life expectancy from 40 to 63 years. Urbanisation is 26% and 70% of the population watch TV. From 320 miles of paved roads in 2002, today tarred roads cover 10000 miles. Infant mortality rates are down from 20% by over half. With a median age of 18.5 years, a majority of Afghans have grown up in a post-Taliban era. Today, they bear the brunt of 130 daily Taliban/IS-Khorasan (IS-K) attacks, the highest since the US ended combat operations in end-2014. Tomorrow, even these limited gains are at risk.

Taliban gains legitimacy

For US President George Bush, the objective was “to build a stable, strong, effectively governed Afghanistan that won’t degenerate into chaos”. As US shifted from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency, shades of Vietnam began to emerge. To Hamid Karzai’s credit, he saw the writing on the wall when he protested about the night-raids and warned the Americans “to either take the fight to the safe havens and sanctuaries across the Durand Line or make peace with the Taliban” but it only soured his relations with the US.

Eventually, US President Barack Obama diluted the objective to “preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for global terrorism”. He oversaw a successful operation to eliminate Osama bin Laden in 2011, implemented an unsuccessful military surge concluding with an end to combat operations in end-2014 and Taliban opened the Doha office in 2013.  

US President Donald Trump saw himself as a deal-maker and in 2018, initiated direct negotiations with the Taliban. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad (US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation) began by setting out four elements – a ceasefire, cutting ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, intra-Afghan peace talks, and, a withdrawal of all foreign military forces, declaring that “nothing is agreed till everything is agreed”. Within months, Taliban had whittled down the US demands till it got what it wanted – a withdrawal timeline not linked to the other factors. In addition, Taliban managed to get the US to push the Kabul government to releasing over 5000 Taliban cadres in custody. In short, the US ended up legitimising the Taliban at the expense of the government in Kabul that they had worked to create and support.

US President Joe Biden was no stranger to the Afghan dossier. He was convinced that US had to exit from its quagmire of “forever wars”. US may have decided that it had no military options but Taliban are still pushing ahead militarily.

From less than a fifth, today, over a third of Afghanistan’s over 400 districts are under Taliban control. The day after the exit from Bagram, 13 districts, in Badakshan, Takhar, Paktia and Kandahar fell to the Taliban, adding to the fifty that have fallen since May. In many cases, the locals manning the security posts and checkpoints have just surrendered. From villages and towns, there is already a move towards the cities. Intra-Afghan talks in Doha have been in limbo for months.

Questions about the future

Gen Austin Miller, the US commander in Afghanistan, indicated in a recent press conference, “Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised if it continues on this trajectory”. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation warned on June 30, “Today, the survival, security and unity of Afghanistan is in danger…”

Ironically, the most vocal critics of US overstaying in Afghanistan and hinting that US would never leave are the ones now blaming the US for a hasty and irresponsible withdrawal.

In coming months, as uncertainties mount, there will be increasing Taliban presence in the countryside as the Kabul government concentrates on ensuring security in urban areas and of the road networks. Taliban military strategy has been to target districts that enable them to surround provincial capitals. The clutch in the northeast including Badakshan, Takhar, Kunduz and Baghlan enable them to control the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border and the Wakhan corridor that links to China. In the east, they exert control in Ghazni, Zabul and Paktia while Haqqani network is active in Khost and Paktika, and IS-K in Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman. Further south, Taliban control large parts of Kandahar, Helmand and Farah (bordering Iran).

As the reality of the US withdrawal takes hold, how events unfold by end-2021 depends on three factors. First, have the Taliban changed their ideological colours? The US in recent years, and Pakistan for much longer, have been pushing this line but Taliban leadership have given no clues about it. Related to this is the question of Taliban unity. Distances have grown between the Quetta shura, the Doha negotiators and the fighters who want to guard their individual preserves. This works as long as everyone is pursuing the military option but when it comes to power sharing, who calls the shots? Or does it lead to no power sharing?

Second, can the Kabul regime present a unified front? If the leaders in Kabul and the government continue sniping at each other, it will adversely impact the integrity of the chain of command of the Afghan security forces. If opportunistic leaders are tempted to strike their own deals with the Taliban, it will only hasten the collapse and even Western funding will dry up.

The Pakistan factor

Finally, is Pakistan still seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan or has it realised that a Taliban-dominated Kabul will be a magnet for its own home-grown extremists as well as those from the neighbourhood? Can they persuade the Taliban that its legitimacy will be at risk unless it shares power? Pakistan’s influence will weaken once the Rehbari Shura decides to move back from Quetta to Afghanistan.

History tells us that in Afghanistan, there have only been winners and losers, seldom any lasting compromises.

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