Saturday, 25 January 2020

A suggestion for India on the Afghanistan peace talks

Some ten years back, India scared off Richard Holbrooke, a legend in cracking heads as a mediator, when he tried to manage the external security environment as a prelude to getting on with his mandate from President Obama to get the Taliban to the talks table. Central to his conflict analysis was the role of the regional players, India and Pakistan, in the conflict. Believing that he had been put to it by Pakistan, exercising its nuisance value through its hold over the Taliban, even Manmohan Singh’s relatively weak government in its second term, managed to fob him off. His failure perhaps led partially to a heart attack that soon claimed his life.
The United States (US) has learnt its lesson, though often and as recently as this week at Davos, the US reiterated its interest in an India-Pakistan engagement over Kashmir. This was at the behest of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in his meeting with Trump, the subtext being that since Pakistan is playing along with the US gameplan for an exit in Afghanistan, it needs to be obliged by the US leaning its on strategic partner, India, to cut them some rope on Kashmir. Reflexively, India – as earlier – has declined any role for third party assistance with its problem with Pakistan.
This latest regional spat apart, the tenth round of talks between the US and Taliban proceeds in Doha. Currently, the culmination ceremony of the previous round having been cancelled by Trump inimitably through a tweet last September, the talks have resumed. Whereas earlier the pressure over talks was for talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, President Trump settled for talking directly to the Taliban as precursor to arranging talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The Taliban had in September balked at the presence of the Afghan government, who they consider American puppets, at the signing ceremony that was to be held at Camp David. At the time of writing, the Taliban has offered to let off the Americans as they prepare for departure, even as they wind down – but not by much – their targeting of government forces. It is not known if the previous sequence of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government at Oslo would follow this round of talks with the US, if successful.
For its part, India is wary of the talks. It’s long-held, if unrealistic, position has been in favour of intra-Afghan talks being Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. It thinks that US departing would be premature as it would lead to a power imbalance between the Taliban, which is supported by Pakistan, and the Afghan government, that is rather unsteady on its feet. For the reason that the Afghan government is fragile and propped up by external powers, including India through its military training program, political and donor support, the Afghan-led process has not gotten off over the past decade.
The eternal hope has been that the military training, among others by India, US and the United Kingdom, would finally get the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) up to speed to whittle the Taliban. This has proved wishful. Instead, it is to the Taliban’s credit that the threat of spread of the Islamic State in has been contained and pushed back. Knowing this, India is in an internal debate to the extent it needs touching base with the Taliban, though up-front it awaits the outcome Trump’s viceroy for the region, Zalmay Khalilzad, is to serve up soon.
To the extent that a settlement with the US buoys the Taliban in its talks with the government, the Taliban would drive a hard bargain. The Afghan elections process that began late last year is as yet incomplete. While there are reports of the ANSF perking up at long last, making gains in some six districts recently and taking on at least half the burden of bombing the Taliban by air, it is uncertain if this late surge on its part can compensate for the gain in Taliban’s image from having fought the superpower to a standstill and agreed to its departure with dignity, if not surrender as such. The understanding is that Taliban was much in its element in fighting off an infidel, external foe, and would not like to pursue a fight with their fellows, now that the US is out of the equation. It would put it afoul of their own kin and ethnic cousins on the other side. Besides, some reports have it that some fighters are exhausted and were enticed by the 2018 Eid ceasefire. Thus, the possibility of asymmetric talks with Taliban holding the upper hand is tempered somewhat.
This should mitigate India’s concerns somewhat, assuming these were genuine. It cannot be said with any certainty anymore if India’s heart beats for the Afghans. India in Modi’s regime has adopted a self-consciously hyper-realist perspective on national security. By this yardstick, an unsettled Afghanistan is in its better interest since it keeps Pakistan preoccupied to its western flank, thereby providing India with some breathing space to reconcile Kashmir to its new reality within India. Unsettled Afghanistan provides India a proxy war arena - to counter Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir - both within Afghanistan and, from Afghanistan, a handle into Pakistan’s ethnic cauldron. Its power-centric national security approach places India as a spoiler in the ongoing peace process in Afghanistan.
If its national interest is all that drives India these days, then there is another route by way of which it can bring this about. The national interest it wishes to further is perhaps to see that Pakistan does not get its way in Afghanistan, and having got its way there, turns on India yet again in Kashmir. India may also want to preserve its space in Afghanistan, by propping up hitherto allies and seeing its donor aid not go down the drain. Indian national security minders need to be persuaded that this national interest can be obtained without trying to outpoint Pakistan by jinxing the peace talks. 
There are two visits to Delhi. Trump is visiting in end February and the council of heads of government of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), being chaired by India this year, meets in autumn. The latter would bring four other heads of government with an interest in Afghanistan together: Russia, China, Pakistan and India. India could take a measure of where the Afghan peace talks are going when Trump is here and present a plan - outlined below – that would make India part of the solution rather than the problem as the US seems to see it currently.
 The plan proposed here is to that India make a pitch at the SCO for a meeting of minds on the peace process. Since Afghanistan’s membership is pending with the SCO, it could champion this. Already, the SCO has a contact group on Afghanistan that can in the interim work on supporting the peace talks in Afghanistan.
Just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, a peace process is only as good as its implementation. The SCO as a continental organization is best positioned to undertake such support. This would be in keeping with the United Nations Charter and with its best practice of outsourcing peace initiatives to regional organizations with capacity, interest and will to take these on. The political heft of China and Russia can help with Security Council endorsement of an SCO initiative. China and India have the financial capacity for helping with peace building. Evan as the Americans wind up their military presence, they need to be around with rebuilding the country they brought to dust. It would not be entirely outlandish to suggest a peacekeeping operation under SCO aegis, including troops from China, India and Pakistan, among others as Muslim states and other South Asian states. 
Pakistan’s advantage in its hold over the Taliban would be moderated thus. In any case, while Taliban is beholden to Pakistan, it remains an autonomous player. India’s financial largesse would be much needed at a stage when the Taliban can dispense with political support and would not any more need the military support of its erstwhile sponsor. India can thus outflank Pakistan, without antagonizing that state. And, who knows what habits of cooperation interfacing in an Afghan peace process may instill between these two states?