Afghanistan is at the crossroads again. In the last five decades, the country has witnessed diverse projects of nation building and socio-political transformation. The current project, which started in 2001 will end soon.
This project was mandated by the United Nations and was mainly being implemented by the western alliance led by the United States. Although Kabul has been preparing for the US withdrawal since 2014, US President Joe Biden has finally announced the exit date—September 11. This will be the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. From May, its NATO allies and partners will start withdrawing their forces. At the moment there are around 9,600 foreign troops in Afghanistan from 36 countries. A majority of them are from the US (2,500), followed by Germany (1,300), Italy (895), Georgia (860) and the United Kingdom (750).
Many developments have preceded the US exit. These include US President Donald Trump’s South Asia strategy, the Qatar process, establishment of the High Council for National Reconciliation of Afghanistan, the US-Taliban agreement and Moscow ‘troika’ (Russia, China, US).
Draft Peace Proposal
To pave the way for a power-sharing arrangement, the 10-day conference on the Afghanistan peace process is scheduled to be held in Istanbul between April 24 and May 4. The UN, Turkey and Qatar are co-convenors of the conference. The declared objectives of the conference are “to accelerate and complement the ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha on the achievement of a just and durable political settlement”.
As per the UN, the “participation in the Conference and its agenda have been the subject of extensive consultations with the Afghan parties”. So far, the Taliban has not confirmed its participation. A few days back, it declared that until all foreign forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan, it will not participate in any event in Turkey. Perhaps it is looking for some more concessions before announcing participation.
Afghanistan’s peace council has already finalised a draft peace proposal for the conference. Earlier, an eight-page US document on the peace plan was leaked in the Afghan media. Broadly, any successful outcome from Istanbul would include some understanding on the reduction in violence (leading to a ceasefire) and structure and orientation of the interim administration as well as the future government in Kabul.
The US has assured that despite exiting militarily, its diplomatic and humanitarian work in Afghanistan will continue. The same may apply to other western nations as well. Biden has also indicated that the US would like to see other countries, viz. Pakistan, Russia, China, India, and Turkey engage further in Afghanistan.
It is becoming clearer that with the US exit, the role of regional countries is likely to increase. Most regional countries, including India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and Central Asian republics, have been deeply involved in Afghanistan since the early 1990s. In the last 20 years, their role has largely been limited to reconstruction and development activities as the security responsibilities were taken by the US and NATO. Other than the two, only Pakistan has been involved indirectly in security issues due to its deep linkages with the Taliban.
What do these developments mean for India? Even in changed circumstances, India is unlikely to be directly involved in security matters in Afghanistan. It may support security stabilisation through hardware and training if there is a broad-based interim arrangement resulting from the current processes. New Delhi may also continue or even increase its development footprint.
Apart from working with the current Afghan government and the US, New Delhi will also have to synchronise its strategy with other regional players. Qatar, Russia, China, Pakistan and Turkey are actively engaged in the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. Although India has been part of the Heart of Asia process and the Moscow format, it is not seriously involved in the Doha peace process or in Moscow ‘troika’.
All major players share a common desire for a stable Afghanistan. All of them also insist on an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ peace process. However, in their designs, they include their own preferred countries rather than keeping Afghanistan’s interest in mind. Despite these geopolitical realities, it seems all players prefer a Kabul-Taliban negotiated settlement.
Islamabad is useful to all due to its linkages with the Taliban. New Delhi will have to prove its utility beyond past development projects. This is particularly important when the US and broader western interest in Afghanistan is waning. It is likely that a diverse group of countries including Qatar, Russia, China, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran will be influencing future outcomes. Unlike India, a few of them have perceived American presence in Afghanistan negatively.
India still seems uncomfortable with the idea of the Taliban coming back to power in one form or another. This is mainly because of its past record and linkages with Islamabad. Still, a successful negotiated settlement between Kabul and the Taliban will be better than the continuation of war or a Taliban victory.
In the unfolding situation, New Delhi will have to quickly reorient its Afghan strategy. Despite India’s foreign policy orientation moving more towards the US and the West, the new Afghan strategy will have to be synchronised with an entirely different set of players.