In the Afghan theater, India and its balancing act: analysis
The prospects for peace in Afghanistan are uncertain. The February Doha Agreement was not about peace. For the Donald Trump Administration, it was intended to remove the remaining troops of the United States (US) from the country before the next presidential election. For the Taliban, it was ridding Afghanistan of foreign forces and taking it one step closer to taking control of the Afghan government. Taliban chief Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada described the Doha Agreement as the “Agreement to End the Occupation”, while actually calling it “Agreement to Bring Peace to Afghanistan”.
All Afghans long for peace. They are forced to, after four decades of unremitting violence. That is why the renewal of hostilities by the Taliban has been so disappointing. On May 12, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced the resumption of offensive operations against the Taliban in the wake of several terror attacks, including one directed at a maternity hospital in Kabul that killed dozens, including mothers and newborns.
The increase in Taliban violence has led to some disagreement in Washington, DC. The Pentagon maintains that Taliban attacks have increased after the Doha Agreement. The State Department has been largely silent. Secretary of State Mark Pompeo said the Taliban denied any responsibility and condemned the recent attacks as heinous.
After a two-year gap, the Taliban have announced an Eid ceasefire, again without any guarantee that it will be irreversible. This is an effort to establish the Taliban’s good faith and move the intra-Afghan process forward, which supposedly began on March 7.
The Doha Peace Agreement, which surprised the Afghan government, is not a capitulation to the Taliban. Rather, it is a capitulation to Pakistan. Pakistan’s goal is to have a flexible Taliban-led government in Kabul, which would limit India’s presence in Afghanistan and provide a base for jihadist groups attacking India.
Afghanistan has two important neighbors. While Pakistan may fully agree with the Doha Agreement, Iran is not. Despite their new equation with the Taliban, the Iranians have denounced the role of the United States in Afghanistan as “destructive” and the sacrifice of the interests of the Afghan people.
Most international actors want to engage with the Taliban. The Taliban’s having friends is no reason for India to join the group. India was not consulted on the Doha Agreement. India has no responsibility for its implementation; it is up to the protagonists to carry it forward. India has been excluded by Pakistan in any material discussion of the future of Afghanistan, as the United States accepted Pakistan’s red line. That said, even if the United States has decided to leave it in Afghanistan, India cannot.
Recently, there was news that in Muhmand Dara, Nangarhar, most of those killed in an alleged Taliban camp are members of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Aslam Farooqi, head of the Islamic State of Khorasan province, arrested in Afghanistan for his complicity in the Kabul gurudwara attack last month, was previously with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Both JeM and LeT have close ties to the Haqqani Network, whose leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is the deputy leader of the Taliban.
The Taliban’s ties to Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) are well documented. Steve Coll writes at Address S: The C.I.A. and the United States Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in which the Haqqani Network has been the lynchpin of ISI’s covert policy since the 1970s. The group, the Taliban’s most important armed component, has attacked the US forces in Afghanistan. It has also been the executioner targeting Indians in Afghanistan, including diplomats, military officials and aid workers.
The argument that India must discuss its concerns with the Taliban is misleading, as if the Taliban did not know. It is true that the Taliban have not made a statement against India, but the Haqqani Network’s hand is well established in almost all attacks on the Indian mission and posts in Afghanistan and the recent attack on the gurudwara Kart-e-Parwan in Kabul. .
India has supported efforts to bring genuine peace to Afghanistan. He has advised leaders of different ethnicities to work in cohesion with one another for the common purposes of peace and nation building. India favors the reintegration of insurgents and groups that renounce their ties to terrorist groups and networks, resist violence, are inclusive, and adopt the Afghan Constitution. India opposes only the political accommodation of individuals, groups, or organizations associated with known terrorist entities, as this will subvert the fledgling Afghan democracy, undermine human rights, particularly women’s rights, and destroy emerging Afghan institutions. Another concern is that the restoration of the quo-ante status in Afghanistan could lead to the unraveling of the state system in neighboring Pakistan, with imponderable consequences.
India must, as it has been, continue to support the Afghan people and its government, which needs to continue to stand and make its own decisions. India needs to be much more proactive in doing so and openly engaging with all actors across the political spectrum, including moderate Taliban leaders through covert contacts. India has a decent track record of managing Islam-oriented regimes. If the Taliban were to change their behavior, which given its current composition seems unlikely, India would have no trouble interacting with it.
Jayant Prasad is a former director general of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis and a former Indian envoy to Nepal and Afghanistan.
The opinions expressed are personal.