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India forced to rethink Afghan policy as US talks to Taliban

The situation in Afghanistan remains the crux around which many of the regional security issues in South and Central Asia revolve. World powers have never been out of this equation either.

The United States army has been in the country for 18 years now and realizes what many others did before it. Afghanistan is not an easy place to control or even govern for a foreign power.

So the United States President Donald Trump, who had been acting tough with Pakistan over its terror on its territories reached out with a letter seeking Pakistan’s help in achieving peace in Afghanistan. Trump, perhaps has realized, that without Pakistan’s active support, no progress in Afghanistan is possible.

For India, the recent developments are a source of worry. One: India was quite happy that Trump was talking tough to Pakistan and that under him the US had even withheld military assistance to Pakistan to the tune of $2.5 billion.

His letter to Khan now raises new questions. Two: the recent Moscow Format under which Russia hosted the Afghanistan Peace Conference in Moscow where it invited 11 countries. Interestingly, the Taliban also sat at the high table to discuss the future of Afghanistan. India was represented at a ‘non official’ level by two former diplomats.

At the Moscow Format, China and Iran also sent their representatives indicating that the conflict in Afghanistan is no longer limited to an India-Pak equation but there are additional players invested in the future of Afghanistan.


High Peace Council

While the Afghan government was not represented, members of the Afghan Peace Council did attend the Moscow meet. The High Peace Council was created during the tenure of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and its main objective is outreach to the Taliban.

The appointments are made by the government, but the composition is largely from outside the government.

Former Ambassador Anil Trigunayat says that India has maintained a policy of not making a distinction between a good or bad Taliban and “broadly maintain that the Taliban is a terrorist organization”. “The Taliban card has been used by Pakistan with both the Russians and the Americans,” he said.

Trigunayat pointed out that India’s decision to send in two former diplomats in the Moscow Format ensured that India was not ‘keeping aloof’ as far as the future of Afghanistan is concerned even as “India does not want official talks with the Taliban.”

He said that eventually the Taliban will have to be made a part of the peace process in Afghanistan. He added that going back to the 1980s it was the Americans and the Pakistanis that were responsible for creating the Taliban.

“Today, the Americans realize that without the Taliban, it is not possible to resolve Afghanistan”, he said.

For India, this is a huge source of worry for it has publicly maintained for years now that it will not engage in talks with the Taliban, and even the “good” Taliban and the “bad” Taliban distinction that much of the world is now willing to buy in, India is in no mood to do so.

However, the fact that India decided to send two former diplomats and make its presence felt at the Moscow Format is the first solid indication that New Delhi will have to re-asses and rethink its Afghan policy.


Bitter pill


If talking to the Taliban is one bitter pill India is being forced to swallow, another is the acceptance that despite all the terror tags that Pakistan has on itself today, Trump has also given in to the reality that without Pakistan, there is no forward movement here.

Former Ambassador Veena Sikri said that this is “an evolving situation and we need to wait and watch”. She pointed out that there is also another way of looking at Trump’s letter to Imran Khan; and that the US and Trump might be giving Pakistan the message that they know “they are helping the Taliban and the US wants to make sure that Pakistan doesn’t do that.”

Sikri said that today the Taliban control some areas of Afghanistan and the fact that they know they can always fall back into Pakistan constitutes the real problem.

So far, the Afghan government and the US had sided with India on not talking to the Taliban as that would be seen as a kind of legitimacy for their violent campaigns. However, of late, Russia, Iran, and China have shifted stands and today reflect a view that in Afghanistan, only a political settlement can solve the crisis and that the Taliban need to be a part of the dialogue.

In July this year, Pakistan hosted a meet of the intelligence chiefs of Russia, Iran and China. The spy chiefs of all the four nations met to discuss ways to control the spread of Islamic State from Afghanistan into their own territories. Iran, for example, shares a long border with Afghanistan and today is concerned that the violence might just spill over.

The Taliban headquarters are based in Quetta, capital of the Balochistan province, in Pakistan. The Afghan government has many a times pointed the finger at Pakistan over terror attacks on its territory, alleging that Pak support for the Taliban is behind many of these attacks.

India faces a grim choice as the situation in Afghanistan changes with the participation of more regional players and more significantly many those who are willing to talk to the Taliban. A reassessment of its Afghan policy is underway and the decision to send two former diplomats for the Moscow Format gave it a representation at the future of Afghanistan and a little more time to adjust to the changing security paradigm.

 

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