Friday, 13 September 2019

For constructive Indian engagement in the Afghanistan endgame

After nine rounds, the talks between the United States and the Taliban, even as the goalposts were within sight, President Trump cancelled the prospective peace deal touted only early this month by his lead negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad. Though the US has misgivings over some aspects of the emerging agreement, making its secretary of state unwilling to sign up, it is only a question of time for a deal to emerge. This is evident from Trump firing his hardline national security advisor, John Bolton, who had reservations on the emerging deal. Secretary of State Pompeo has left the door open, saying that the talks are called off ‘for now’.
The pressures on Trump are from his reelection campaign kicking in next year and the little known fact that over one lakh veterans for Bush’s war on terror have committed suicide when back from their war stints abroad. He tweeted his about-turn, cancelling the talks, after the latest bombing in Kabul that accounted for, among 12 others, one US and a Romanian soldier.
At the table, the US had required the Taliban to promise keeping Afghanistan from being a sanctuary for anti-West forces in return for a US draw down in preparation for a pull out over the coming year. Intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government were slated in Oslo to set the stage for a return of Taliban to Kabul in some form of power sharing in an interim arrangement. All this will now presumably have to await the Taliban signing up to a ceasefire agreement first.
Clearly, the superpower requires help in extricating from Afghanistan. Absent imaginative interventions from strategic partners, like India, the US will continue to wallow in Afghanistan at a continuing cost to Afghans. This explains the calls not only by the US but also friendly countries, as Germany, for India to lend a hand.
With Taliban on the ascendant, commentary in India took a turn from its usual conflation of Taliban with terrorism to reaching out to the Taliban. The new thinking has it that repositioning in relation to the Taliban would serve India well on multiple fronts. Departing from the usual power-centric narrative, this article highlights an area of constructive Indian engagement in Afghanistan.
The new arrangement that will likely emerge from the eventual intra-Afghan dialogue in Oslo will inevitably require wide international support. The international community is interested in preserving the socio-economic gains made in Afghanistan, such as in matters as education, minority rights and gender. Besides, Afghanistan in a post conflict situation will require extensive state and nation building assistance. The US’ peace surge could not ensure this since it was party to the war.
In the short term, this would be humanitarian and recovery assistance. A return of refugees and internally displaced will follow stabilizing of the security situation. The interim joint security structures would require overseeing the cantonment, retooling and demobilization of irregular fighters, particularly of the Taliban who are not absorbed into state structures. Structural peacebuilding will be proceeding alongside, in terms of implementation of any peace agreement that emerges from the talks. This would likely include an intra-Afghan dialogue at the local level, constitution making at the national capital and elections down the line. Cultural peacebuilding will have to proceed apace in order to bring about inter-tribal reconciliation after forty years of war.
The prospective peace agreement cannot but have a prominent section on security. A joint military commission and security structures are likely to be in place as part of an overarching agreement. However, the history of bloodletting over the past decades suggests that international oversight and engagement may be necessary.
There are two regional organizations that could play such role, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Even if an obituary is too early to write up on the SAARC, it can be ruled out for now. As for the SCO, Afghanistan is not a member as yet, but can be inducted since its application is pending. The SCO has the heft of having Russia, China, India and Pakistan as members, and Iran as an observer. However, since a proportion of US troops may stay on for longer, the US would not want to hand over the situation to its rivals, Russia and China.
That leaves the UN, with its political mission in place having its peacebuilding mandate upgraded with an additional peacekeeping one. The idea of peacekeeping in Afghanistan is not new. There has been mention of Muslim states such as Turkey, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia, providing peacekeepers. Incidentally, the regional states – Nepal, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan – provide the UN its best peacekeepers. The two sides, India and Pakistan, have a history of bonhomie on UN missions.
This brings forth a counter-intuitive idea, of regional peacekeepers – amongst others - under a blue flag. Indian and Pakistani troops serving together may help blunt the competition of interests between the two states in Afghanistan and preclude a prospective proxy war. Depending on how things shape up in Kashmir and how India’s forging of relations with the Taliban plays out, operationalising the idea would enable India to be responsive to the US entreaties to do more in Afghanistan.
Even if premature for now, India - in the interim as talks restart - could assist with politically shepherding the idea of a widely mandated UN mission. Such a UN mission could resemble the one in South Sudan. That mission was designed to get the new state up and running, even if it ran into rough weather two years into its life cycle. It’s being waylaid by a civil war should not deter out-of-the-box thinking, with the lessons-learnt from the crises informing the design. There is sufficient stomach for such a mission, with the US likely to reprise its strategy of starving the UN of funds in order to help the UN bail it out of its longest war. Regional states being onboard can make the idea tick.
Continuing engagement will help with moderation of the Taliban. It will help keep Taliban accountable to the agreement it signs up to. Such support will help the Taliban balance any Pakistani pressures on it, enabling it to cast aside Pakistan’s shadow as an autonomous actor. International presence and oversight will ensure that the government forces, women and minorities are not imposed on adversely. Absent such oversight, it can only portend a return to civil war and multiple proxy wars.
India has the capacity to engage with this process of socialisation of the Taliban. Its participation would be indispensible for the international community because of the political weight it brings to the table as a regional power, and as an economic heavyweight. Continued engagement will help India preserve its over-USD 2 billion investment in Afghanistan, besides deepen India’s soft power sway. It will help India keep a foot in the door in Afghanistan, that otherwise is set to be dominated by its other competitor, China.
India would also be able to influence Taliban’s perspective on regional security issues as Kashmir, preempting any redeployment of Taliban fighters by Pakistan from a stabilized situation in Afghanistan towards a restive Kashmir. This would help build on the Taliban’s preference expressed in its statement on the changes in Kashmir that the two states, India and Pakistan, keep their difference over Kashmir out of the emerging situation in Afghanistan.
As of now, it appears that India has fired off its first shot in the Afghan endgame by its timing the changes in Kashmir. Such a strategy places India as a potential spoiler. Indian hardliners would not be averse to seeing Afghanistan as a site of proxy war sucking in Pakistan. However, continuing of instability in Afghanistan can only have a backlash in Kashmir. Therefore if India instead plays along with the developments, it would alleviate Pakistan’s security dilemma. A tacit understanding must be arrived at between the two neighbours through the backchannel in which Pakistan lays off Kashmir in return. 
This tradeoff allowing Pakistan some success in its quest for strategic depth in Afghanistan has immediate term implications in keeping a lid on the situation in Kashmir. India can sugarcoat this by conferring statehood on Jammu and Kashmir and making provision of cultural and land protection under Article 371. India can thus imaginatively target two birds with one stone: stabilizing Kashmir while inserting itself constructively into the endgame in Afghanistan.
Currently, India is headed into a proxy war in Afghanistan to pay back Pakistan for its proxy war in Kashmir. Such an outcome is product of the muscular strategic outlook India has taken to lately. Alternative strategic options are available such as the innovative one broached here. A regional power with great power aspiration should be held to no less an ambitious strategy for shaping its region.