A week after the US President Donald Trump declared the talks with the Taliban “dead,” the insurgent group insisted that negotiations remained “the only way for peace in Afghanistan” and that its “doors are open” should the US President want to resume peace talks in the future. Just earlier this month, the two sides had appeared close to a deal to end the 18-year conflict with Trump, even inviting senior Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for a meeting at Camp David on 8 September. But a Taliban attack in the Afghan capital city of Kabul on 6 September, which killed a US soldier and 11 others, prompted Trump to pull out, saying the group “probably don’t have the power to negotiate” if they were unable to agree to a ceasefire during talks. With this all the anticipation about a Trump- Taliban deal came down crashing.
For their part, the Taliban today control more territory than at any point since US-led forces ousted them in 2001 and do not recognise the legitimacy of President Ashraf Ghani’s administration. They have refused to hold direct talks with the Afghan government until a US deal is agreed. And the attacks have continued. In the last few days, two separate suicide attacks in Afghanistan have killed at least 48 people and injured dozens others. In Parwan province, north of the capital Kabul, an election rally where President Ashraf Ghani was due to speak was attacked, and 26 people died. Another blast, near the US embassy in central Kabul, killed 22 people. This was perhaps Taliban’s way of demonstrating their prowess in shaping the Afghanistan battlefield as well as its political landscape. The Taliban has also reached out to countries like Russia and Iran after the collapse of the peace talks. Moscow has hosted two previous rounds of talks in 2019 between Taliban negotiators and key Afghan interlocutors, including wider region. A trip to China may also be on the cards.
Intra-Afghan talks were likely to have started on 23 September, had a deal been reached, and would have included discussions about a wider ceasefire. The Ghani administration is also signalling that it is toughening its stance, suggesting that Taliban “intimidation tactics” would not succeed and that “the only way they can see peace in Afghanistan is by negotiating with the Afghan government.” It has made it clear that no further talks are now possible before September 28 Presidential elections.
These fast evolving regional realities are increasing pressure on regional powers to step up their game. India is no exception. Bemoaning the fact that the war against terrorism in, and from, Afghanistan is being conducted, for all purposes, only by the US, Washington is likely to get more serious about wanting countries like India, Iran, Russia and Turkey to join the fight sooner than later. Trump’s call for ‘burden-sharing’ will only grow louder.
Those in India berating New Delhi for becoming marginal in Afghanistan today, though, are the very same who have resisted Indian efforts to step up its military profile there. India has done a lot in Afghanistan in terms of developmental work — certainly much more than ‘funding a library’ that Trump wisecracked about in January. There is also genuine goodwill for India in Afghanistan. But when it comes to negotiating about the future power structure in Afghanistan, there is no substitute to hard power. What is equally true is that despite attempts by Pakistan to have it otherwise, India can’t be ignored as Afghanistan’s future is being decided.
New Delhi’s ability to shape the priorities of its neighbours remains quite significant, as was made amply evident when Pakistan tried to link Kashmir and Afghanistan after India abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that removed Jammu & Kashmir’s ‘special status’ in the Union of India.
Pakistan was then reminded by no less than the Taliban that “linking the issue of Kashmir with that of Afghanistan by some parties will not aid in improving the crisis at hand because the issue of Afghanistan is not related”. Pakistan’s inability to think of Afghanistan beyond its ‘strategic depth’ fallacy will ensure that whichever party comes to power in Kabul, it will look to New Delhi to safeguard its sovereignty.
So, India’s Afghanistan policy should rapidly adapt to the evolving realities and play a role that suits India’s stature in the context of the wider South Asian region. While the collapse of the Taliban-US peace process may have given New Delhi some breathing process, status quo is not really an option. If a stable and economically robust Afghanistan was in India’s interest in the past, it continues to be a priority in the future as well. The US, ‘7,000 miles away,’ will come and go. But the realities of geography will remain for India.
Professor Harsh V. Pant is Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.