India’s presence in the recently-commenced intra-Afghan peace talks signals that she wants to play a meaningful role in a post-war Afghanistan, but there remain hurdles in that path.
It is not often that a war-torn country gets a golden opportunity to turn the clock back. The intra-Afghan peace talks aim at no less than ending the two-decade-old civil war in Afghanistan which has battered the country’s economy and society. The talks are happening after a lot of jousting and discord, marked by routine armed clashes between the Taliban and the Afghan armed forces, routine killings of civilians, and the holding of peace to ransom.
Peace in Afghanistan at last?
The much anticipated intra-Afghan talks may well pave the path towards peace. Afghanistan has borne the brunt of external interference in the last four decades starting with the Soviet invasion of 1979 and followed by the covert interference of US, Pakistan and other external actors, who not only funnelled billions of dollars into Afghanistan to carry out ‘jihad’ but were also successful in preventing the ‘domino effect’ of communism in South Asia. It came, though, at an enormous cost for ordinary Afghans.
When the Taliban was driven out of power in 2001 after ruling the country with an iron fist for five years, the invasion by US and other coalition forces seemed to offer a new dawn of development for Afghanistan, but alas, the ordinary Afghans continued to face the horrific spectre of death, economic destruction, and dehumanising poverty. In this context, the intra-Afghan peace talks are the first opportunity for Afghans to set the terms of peace by themselves.
India has been the highest contributor towards rebuilding the Afghan economy, investing close to $3 billion since 2002. It has executed notable projects such as the Salma Dam project, the Afghan Parliament, and the Zaranj Delaram highway in 2005. All these have helped India become one of the major players in Afghan domestic and foreign affairs.
When external affairs minister S Jaishankar said that the Afghan peace talks must be “Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan determined”, it clearly demonstrated that India has taken an upper hand in Afghanistan vis-à-vis Pakistan and China. Clearly, the Afghan government is miffed at Pakistan fomenting and supporting terrorism on Afghan soil. The exit of America, however, means that Afghanistan could again become the centre of great power competition between India, Pakistan and a new entrant, China. But it clear that since India enjoys the goodwill of ordinary Afghans, Pakistan’s designs will be foiled despite the distinct possibility that the Taliban will be in a much better position to bargain with the Afghan government, which it dismisses as a puppet of Western powers, and achieve its aim of overthrowing the government to establish an Islamic emirate.
There still remain many pressing concerns which New Delhi must resolve before playing a meaningful role in the Afghan peace process. Firstly, Pakistan remains a potent force in Afghanistan. It is the ideological and logistical godfather of the Taliban. Tilak Devasher in his seminal book ‘Pakistan: Courting the Abyss’ has pertinently highlighted that the Pakistani deep state and the ISI continue to provide arms and monetary support to the Taliban despite the latter being a proscribed terror group under the UN 1267 sanctions committee. The author also went on to highlight that besides the Taliban, the dreaded Haqqani Network is also on the payroll of the ISI. India needs to be careful and must continue to expose Pakistan’s nefarious designs before the FATF to try and put an end to Pakistan’s support to terrorism.
Secondly, ISIS has established a strong presence in the eastern parts of the country and has demonstrated its capacity to carry out large-scale terror strikes deep within the heart of Kabul and other cities in Afghanistan. Besides this, the ISIS has been trying to radicalise and recruit local youth from India as well. India therefore must remain on its guard. The Indian government must enforce the Maharashtra model of renunciation and reconciliation to prevent radicalisation of its youth.
Thirdly, India must ensure that the sanctity of the February 29 peace accord signed between the Afghan Taliban and US is upheld in letter and spirit. New Delhi should put pressure on the Taliban to follow the peace accord, particularly the provision that Afghanistan must not be allowed to be used as a launch pad for launching terror attacks in South Asia.
Being the world’s largest democracy and a growing economic and military power, India must play an important role in rebuilding and resurrecting Afghanistan. It must, however, be careful that it doesn’t play the big brother, otherwise India’s hard-won diplomatic progress will go waste. India’s interest lies in an economically, socially and politically prosperous Afghanistan.
—The writer is an Honours student in Political Science with specialisation in International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.