Afghanistan endgame | Options before India after Trump cancels talks
At the start of the month, the talks with the Taliban appeared to be headed to a culmination. After nine rounds over almost a year, the lead United States’ (US) negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, had touted a putative agreement in which the Taliban promised good behaviour in exchange for a draw down preceding a full withdrawal by the US.
However, the latest bombing by the Taliban, that accounted for a US soldier among 12 killed in Kabul, had US President Donald Trump tweet his cancelling the talks. Presumably here on talks would be on a ceasefire preceding further negotiations, including intra-Afghan talks that were to take place in Oslo following the now-shelved peace deal.
Three scenarios lie ahead in case the US sticks to its schedule for departure by the end of next year, predicated as it is on Trump’s promise to leave foreign war zones by re-election time.
The first is progressive take over by the Taliban of Afghanistan, from their current sway over short of two-thirds of the country. The second is a balancing of the Taliban by increasing investment in the Afghan military by countries, including India, apprehensive of the Taliban overrunning the state. The third is aggravation of civil war by proxy war, resulting in deepening chaos with impending departure of US forces as backdrop.
If the US stays on longer to get the job done, the second is more likely. If it sticks to departure schedule, the third emerges as likely since proxy war — including an India-Pakistan one — will replicate the scenario in which the Northern Alliance held off the Taliban preceding 9/11.
Of the three, India would prefer the second. It appears to have fired the first shot already, having timed its abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir in light of the emerging regional developments. It took advantage of Pakistani preoccupation to the west, hoping that the window of opportunity would enable the fait accompli to stabilise.
The strategy has its drawbacks. With Pakistan thwarted in Afghanistan, it would turn to its proxy war in Kashmir with a vengeance. The portents of this have been indicated by the national security adviser in his atypical meeting over the weekend with the press.
Neither continuing civil war nor chaos in Afghanistan would help preserve the developmental gains by the international community, of which India was a leading light. It would also further endanger the ethnic groups affiliated with India.
The likelihood of a default profiting of Pakistani discomfiture by India is explicable. India is embarked on a muscular policy towards Pakistan and tying Pakistan down in Afghanistan may prove tempting to even the score over Kashmir.
Besides, the likelihood of such a strategy increases with the ascendance of hardliners on the strategic circuit and of the intelligence community — that would be the implementers — within policy circles.
Such a strategy entails upping the military support for Afghan national security forces. Already this is at a considerable level, particularly in terms of training. Other states, such as the US, provide the more lethal and material support. That the Afghan government side continues to lose ground nevertheless suggests the likely ineffectiveness of the strategy.
At best it would keep the pot boiling in Afghanistan, making for scenario two to turn into scenario three. This may have the advantage of sucking in and damaging Pakistan — giving it a taste of its own medicine applied to the Soviets earlier and the US.
However, the cost will be in keeping Kashmir as a proxy war front and the region crisis prone. It cannot be sold as a low-cost option, since the backlash will lead to upping military spending in a time of an economic down turn. Boots on ground may follow in case of escalation.
Therefore, Trump’s call for India to do more needs to be taken imaginatively. India needs stepping up politically. As a regional power, this is an opportunity.
It has the political, economic and soft power heft to engage the Taliban. Doing so can help it — along with others — socialise the Taliban, wean it away from Pakistan and get a foot in the door of the Afghan peace process. This will enable India to balance the expanding role of China in the Afghan endgame.
The first step is an outreach to the Taliban. As a deterrence signal, alongside, strengthening Afghan security forces must continue. The parlays with the Taliban must reinforce the message of the international community of support for its return to a power-sharing arrangement and continuing peacebuilding support thereafter in return for moderation.
The narrative thus far on the Taliban villainy makes such advocacy appear far-fetched. However, the Taliban — as the new commentary emerging from Delhi’s strategic circuit indicates — is a strategic actor. With an assisted return to power in Kabul within its sights, it would be unwilling pass up a trade-off, even as it throws off Pakistani shackles.
It’s time for India to re-examine its strategic verities and act like a regional power finally out to shape its region.