Foreign Policy Watch: India-Afghanistan

Afghan peace and India’s elbow room

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Countries sharing border with Afghanistan.

Mains level : Paper 2- Implications for India of the return of Taliban in Afghanistan after US-Taliban deal.

The article discusses India’s exclusion from the Afghan peace process. As India seeks to fight back its exclusion there are certain issues that need to be addressed. India’s reluctance to enter into talks with the Taliban in one such issue, which needs a rethink. And there are several areas in which India needs to continue working like-the goodwill in Afghanistan, participation in assistance work, bringing together the major leaders in that country.

India left out of the meeting on peace in Afghanistan

  • Earlier this month, the United Nations Secretariat held a meeting of what it calls the “6+2+1” group on regional efforts to support peace in Afghanistan.
  • The group includes six neighbouring countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; global players the United States and Russia, and Afghanistan itself.
  • India was conspicuous by its absence from the meeting on April 16, given its historical and strategic ties with Afghanistan.
  • This has not happened for the first time, India was left out form talks similarly in 2001 and 2010.
  • In both 2001 and 2010, however, India fought back its exclusion
  • At the Bonn agreement of 2010, India played a major role in Northern Alliance accepting Hamid Karzai as the Chairman of the interim arrangement that replaced the Taliban regime.
  • After the 2010 conference, New Delhi redoubled its efforts with Kabul, and in 2011 India signed the historic Strategic Partnership Agreement, which was Afghanistan’s first such agreement with any country.

Reasons for not inviting India

  • In 2020, the reason given for keeping India out of regional discussions on Afghanistan was ostensibly that it holds no “boundary” with Afghanistan.
  • But in fact, it is because New Delhi has never announced its support for the U.S.-Taliban peace process.
  • As planners in South Block now consider their next steps in Afghanistan, they must fight back against the idea that any lasting solution in Afghanistan can be discussed without India in the room, while also studying the reasons for such exclusions.

Following are the issues that Indian must consider and act on as it seeks to fight back its exclusion from the peace talks.

India’s position on Afghan-led peace process and reality

  • India’s resistance to publicly talking to the Taliban has made it an awkward interlocutor at any table.
  • Its position that only an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled process can be allowed is a principled one but has no takers.
  • The Ashraf Ghani government does not lead, own or control the reconciliation process today, comprising the U.S.-Taliban negotiation for an American troops withdrawal, and intra-Afghan talks on power-sharing.
  • The U.S.-Taliban peace deal means that the Taliban, will become more potent as the U.S. withdraws soldiers from the country.
  • Taliban will hold more sway in the inter-Afghan process as well, as the U.S. withdraws funding for the government in Kabul.

Two effects of India’s position

  • New Delhi’s decision to put all its eggs in the Ghani basket has had a two-fold effect:
  • 1) Its voice in the reconciliation process has been limited.
  • 2) It has weakened India’s position with other leaders of the deeply divided democratic setup in Kabul such as the former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.

India should not let its diplomatic strength weaken

  • India painstakingly built up its presence inside Afghanistan since 2001.
  • This presence is being threatened anew by terror groups such as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).
  • ISKP is believed to be backed by Pakistan’s establishment.
  • Intercepts showed that the brutal attack, in March, that killed 25 at a gurudwara in Kabul was meant for the embassy in Kabul.
  • The government cleared out both of its consulates this month.
  • While the government has said that the novel coronavirus pandemic prompted its decision to clear out both consulates.
  • The truth is that a full security reassessment is under way for them.
  • Either way, India’s diplomatic strength in Afghanistan should not appear to be in retreat just when it is needed the most.

Goodwill in Afghanistan and damage caused due to CAA

  • The government must also consider the damage done to the vast reservoir of goodwill India enjoys in Afghanistan because of recent events in the country, especially the controversy over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
  • The building blocks of that goodwill are India’s assistance in infrastructure projects, health care, education, trade and food security, and also in the liberal access to Afghans to study, train and work in India.
  • Above all, it is India’s example as a pluralistic, inclusive democracy that inspires many.
  • Afghanistan’s majority-Muslim citizens have felt cut out of the move to offer fast track citizenship to only Afghan minorities.
  • The damage was also done by reports of anti-Muslim rhetoric and incidents of violence in India.

Regain upper hand in the narrative in Afghanistan

  • While many of these are problems of perception, New Delhi must move swiftly to regain the upper hand in the narrative in Afghanistan.
  • India has provided the assistance of more than $3 billion in projects.
  • Bilateral trade is about $1 billion.
  • A $20 billion projected development expenditure of an alternate route through Chabahar.
  • And support to the Afghan National Army, bureaucrats, doctors and other professionals for training in India should assure it a leading position in Afghanistan’s regional formulation.
  • Three major projects along with hundreds of small development projects (of schools, hospitals and water projects) have cemented that position in Afghan hearts nationwide, regardless of Pakistan’s attempts to undermine that position, particularly in the South.
  • The three major projects include 1) the Afghan Parliament, 2) the Zaranj-Delaram Highway, 3)the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam (Salma dam).

 Pursue opportunities to fulfil its role in the peace efforts

  • India must also pursue opportunities to fulfil its role in the peace efforts in Afghanistan, starting with efforts to bridge the Ghani-Abdullah divide.
  • India could also play role in bringing together other major leaders with whom India has built ties for decades.
  • It would be an utter tragedy if the Taliban were to enter the government in Kabul as the U.S. deal envisages, to find the opposing front collapse as it did in 1996.
  • An understanding between Iran and the U.S. on Afghanistan is necessary for a lasting peace as well, and India could play a mediatory part, as it did in order for the Chabahar project.

Return of the Taliban has several implications for India. In 2013, the UPSC asked a question related to developments in Afghanistan against the backdrop of the proposed withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force. Similarly, a question based on the latest development can be asked, for ex-“The return of Taliban after the US-Taliban deal in Afghanistan is fraught with major security implications for the countries in the region. Examine in the light of the fact that India is faced with a plethora of challenges and needs to safeguard its own strategic interests.”

Use UN call for peace to put hostilities with Pakistan on hold

  • Finally, New Delhi should use the United Nations’s call for a pause in conflicts during the novel coronavirus pandemic, to ensure a hold on hostilities with Pakistan.
  • This will be even more difficult than it sounds given the abyss that bilateral relations have fallen into in the past year over Kashmir.

Conclusion

It would be a mistake, at this point, to tie all India’s support in only to Kabul or the Ghani government; the government must strive to endure that its aid and assistance is broad-based, particularly during the novel coronavirus pandemic to centres outside the capital, even if some lie in areas held by the Taliban.

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