A peace strategy for Afghanistan
Afghanistan is currently poised at a critical juncture. Apprehensions of a civil war abound in the contestation underway between the government, the Taliban and ethnic militias formed in anticipation of an impending civil war. The deteriorated security situation owes to the earlier than anticipated pace of departure of the United States (US) and its allies, with the former exiting its ‘longest war’.
The uncertainty results from the planned sequence of exit not having materialized. In late February last year, the US had entered into an agreement with the Taliban in which it had promised to leave Afghanistan by 1 May this year, in return for Taliban’s guarantee of securing Afghanistan against any threat to the US from its soil. The Taliban was also to undertake talks with the Afghan government on a ceasefire and the future roadmap for Afghanistan.
In the event, the transition from the Trump to the Biden administration led to the departure date of the US being set back by a few months by Biden, who announced that they would leave by the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, that had prompted their intervention in first place.
The hold up and prospects
For its part, the Taliban has played hard ball and procrastinated on the intra-Afghan talks at Doha that were to have resulted in a ceasefire. It did not turn up for the Istanbul meeting intended to lend momentum to the talks. It has nevertheless stuck to its side of the agreement with the US to talk to the government, there having been two rounds of talks so far – in September last year and in mid June.
The Taliban has indicated that it has a written-out plan that it would be conveying to the government at the next round of talks. The government is amenable to an interim arrangement of sharing power, with elections thereafter. A comprehensive agreement would also require covering a review of the 2004 Constitution, informed by Taliban’s view that the Constitution must reflect Islamic values. To what extent these values will draw on extremist versions of the Sharia is the major concern. The government and its backers would like to preserve the gains made over the past twenty years of peace building, in particular advances in the space for women and protection of minorities.
That the US has been emboldened to depart at a faster pace – best exemplified by its sudden vacation of the Bagram air base - suggests not so much an indifference on its part to what might follow, but a tactic to get to the two sides – in particular the one it backs, the Afghan government – to get serious on intra-Afghan talks. The Afghan government has been reassured that it and the Afghan military would continue receiving US support, a message conveyed most recently during the visit of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to the US.
The Taliban is reliant on the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and can potentially be influenced by these countries, all of whom are friends of the US. Saudi Arabia is in midst of a makeover from its earlier adherence to puritanical religious norms, and therefore can be expected to help moderate the Taliban.
The other interested regional players – Russia, Iran, China and Central Asian neighbours – have pitched in favour of a peace process and would stay engaged with both the ongoing peacemaking and inevitable peace building to follow. There is a consensus against an Islamist Emirate emerging in Afghanistan, including within Pakistan, the major backer of the Taliban, which cannot but register with the Taliban. Russia recently received a Taliban delegation out to reassure it that the Taliban has turned a new leaf.
A role for the UN?
Some building blocks are in place for managing the aftermath sufficiently to preclude prospects of civil war. The UN has a special political mission in place dating to the implementation phase of the Bonn agreement in late 2001. The mission has been largely engaged with lending coherence to peace building efforts so far.
The UN is no stranger to conflicts in Afghanistan, having assisted with peace processes earlier with special envoys and political missions. The Geneva Accords resulted from some six years of UN engaging with the Soviet Union, the Mujahedeen and parties supportive of the latter. It deployed the UN Good Offices Mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the late eighties to oversee implementation of the agreement.
From 1993 onwards - till 2001 - it had a political mission of support in Afghanistan, interfacing with the belligerents, Taliban and the United Front. Lakhdar Brahimi, who was the personal representative of the secretary general for a time in the period, had been instrumental in an early and positive conclusion to the agreement that emerged in Bonn post 9/11.
The UN has now appointed a special envoy, in preparation for assisting with the peacemaking at the intra-Afghan talks to complement the work of the Gulf States acting as facilitators of the intra-Afghan talks at Doha. This means that the infrastructure for supporting negotiations is in place, as also the UN capability to help implement any agreement that might emerge in the political mission, UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), enhancing its peace building role.
Given that the major players are contending militarily, there would be necessity for a military adjunct to UNAMA. A comprehensive ceasefire arrangement necessarily implies measures for monitoring and dispute settlement, logically entailing third party assistance such as from the United Nations (UN) or a regional organization as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). This may change its current complexion from a political mission to a peacekeeping one.
The SCO has a security role best evidenced from the recent meeting of national security advisers (NSA) of its member states – attended by India’s NSA, Ajit Doval - that no doubt considered the situation in Afghanistan. It can whistle up either a peacekeeping force or monitors in case an intra-Afghan agreement emerges from Doha.
Implications for India
India, albeit tentatively, stepped up its engagement as the situation has clarified on the US end game in Afghanistan. While it had reluctantly sent two retired diplomats to talks in Moscow in the initial stages of the peace process in 2018, reports from UAE have it that it has met this year with Taliban interlocutors in Dubai.
Though it has denied a meeting of Foreign Minister Jaishankar with Taliban representatives in his recent visit to UAE, a credible outreach at an official level is certainly on since it has attracted derisory attention of no less than the Pakistani national security advisor, who, apropos little, declaimed that India should be ‘ashamed’ of such contacts.
India feels free to engage with the Taliban as the Afghan government is itself in talks with the group. The advantage of such engagement is that India can get a direct feel of the attitude and intention of the Taliban and through the talks can influence it to respect India’s interests and investment in Afghanistan. It could also promise to support the interim arrangement and the elected government that follows with peace building support, incentivizing Taliban to moderate its postures.
Positive fallout of the emerging situation in Afghanistan on the India-Pakistan equation has been the let up in firing on the Line of Control since the late February. Even so, there are dark clouds forming. The apprehension is not so much from Taliban directly, as much from Pakistan. Once its northern flank is secured by Taliban in a power sharing arrangement in Kabul, Pakistan may resume its proxy war in Kashmir.
If the allegations by the two sides – India and Pakistan - are to be believed, then they have just engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange attended by plausible deniability. India has been blamed by Pakistan for the bomb blast in Lahore and Pakistan has been held responsible for the drone attack on Jammu air field. Pakistan has said that the reported contacts between the two sides, that had eased the situation, have since ceased.
India has two strategic options: one, fuel the Afghan civil war through a proxy war in Afghanistan with Pakistan and thereby keep Pakistan bogged down; or, two, lend its shoulder to the peace process in Afghanistan. The former is hardly a friendly gesture by an avowed friend of the Afghan people that is India. While the latter seemingly favours Taliban and, in turn, its backer Pakistan, it is a collaborative approach can see ripple effects in Kashmir.
Even though Taliban claims to have take 85 per cent of the area, civil war is not inevitable. Action must not be taken making civil war a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, mediation support should be enhanced. The current period of instability must be reframed as one in which the contending sides are last-minute trying to get to a position of strength, a typical pre-negotiation strategy.
Viewed thus, there is scope for military support of the government to hold its own. India has trained over 100 Afghan officers every year at its commissioning academies since its strategic partnership agreement in 2011. Holding the Ghani government’s hand will redress any asymmetry, making it clear to Taliban that it cannot take on the battle field what it can instead get on the negotiation table.
The Indian foreign minister has rightly held that legitimacy is a concern today. The ‘secret’ visit of the head of the Afghan High Peace Council, Abdullah Abdullah, to Delhi implies a role in returning sustaining peace for India. This can be by helping reduce the asymmetry on the negotiation table against the Afghan government.
To assume such a role, India must display self-confidence in its soft power to influence the Taliban to settle with the Afghan government and in its hard power to negate any consequences on Kashmir. The Afghan end game provides an opportunity for collaboration between India and Pakistan (and, indeed, also China) on restoring sustainable peace.
The building blocks for peace are already in place: peacemaking facilitation by the Gulf States supported by the UN; all actors on standby for peace building assistance coordinated by the UN; and ceasefire monitoring peacekeeping forces easily whistled up on culmination of Doha talks.
 The author thanks the Nelson Mandela Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, for the opportunity of a lecture at which he made the observations in the article.