Pakistan joined the US, Russia and China over the weekend to craft a peace agreement with the Taliban, a move that shows how Islamabad has moved to the centre stage of Afghan peace process. Despite having vital security interests, India's participation or voice has been negligible in the evolving situation

by Indrani Bagchi

NEW DELHI: Pakistan joined the US, Russia and China over the weekend to craft a peace agreement with the Taliban, a development that shows how Islamabad has moved to the centre stage of the Afghan peace process, and how India has been dealt out of the future of Afghanistan. India's participation or voice has been negligible in the evolving situation, while Pakistan has used the opportunity to manoeuvre itself to centre stage of the region's geopolitics. 

Shaida Abdali, former Afghan ambassador to India and a presidential candidate, told TOI here last week, "India's 18-year-old effort to strengthen ties with Afghanistan should not be lost at this juncture. India's indifference to the evolving situation in Afghanistan will likely cost it in the long run." 

India is nowhere in the peace negotiations, nor have India's concerns really found any traction. 

In the latest blow to India, US ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, on Thursday said that Afghanistan's presidential elections, scheduled for September 28, could be postponed, until the peace process with the Taliban was completed. 

India is opposed to this - during US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo's visit to New Delhi, NSA Ajit Doval repeatedly stressed the importance of holding elections in Afghanistan on schedule even if the peace process was on. India also opposed the proposal to have an interim government in Afghanistan, both with US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and with Russia. None of India's concerns cut much ice with any of the principal stakeholders in Afghanistan. 

Last week, the US and the Taliban hammered out a provisional 8-point agreement (although in the Pashto version it includes 10 points). Despite Khalilzad saying the US won't "cut and run" and that it was "not a withdrawal agreement but a peace agreement" the Taliban and others have interpreted the agreement as the former. The process has gathered momentum, despite almost daily terror attacks by the Taliban. 

India's 18-year investment in Afghanistan has been largely with the government of the day. India remains the most popular country in Afghanistan with the people. Amar Sinha, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan and member, NSAB said, "India should be more proactive. It is in a good place as far as the nationalist Afghans are concerned. India should bring them together at this time, so they can speak unitedly. We're distressed to see the level of disunity among the political leaders in Afghanistan." 

Abdali said, "One of the most critical gains post 2001 is our democratic process -- which must not be affected without full international guarantees that Afghanistan will not reverse to pre-2001 dark era. It is necessary that India remain engaged … as a trusted country versus a disruptive one. In this uncertainty, with no viable solution in sight, India must stay engaged." 

The US has succeeded in bringing Russia and China on the same page, and last week they included Pakistan, Taliban's principal sponsor. Pakistan is playing a crucial role of bringing the Taliban to the table and keeping them there. On July 12, the four countries met in Beijing to issue a 'four-party joint statement on the Afghan peace process. 

The statement "welcomed recent positive progress as the crucial parties concerned have advanced their talks and increased contacts with each other. All sides also welcomed Intra-Afghan meetings held in Moscow and Doha. … The four sides encouraged all parties to take steps to reduce violence leading to a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire that starts with Intra-Afghan negotiations." 

The Doha agreement of July 7-8 between the US and Taliban includes the agreements reached in Moscow, thereby taking care of Russia's interests. China and Pakistan look out for each other. India is out of the picture, despite having vital security interests. Interestingly, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, believed to be close to India, became a facilitator of the Taliban talks both in Moscow and in Beijing. 

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's elected government has been under concerted pressure. First, the Taliban has refused to countenance them as a credible party, to the extent that the "intra-Afghan" talks included people from the government in their personal capacities. Second, Taliban attacks in the past weeks and months have been relentless. Third, neither US, Russia, China or Pakistan have given the government any place at the talks. Fourth, with no certainty of elections, the government is looking at extinction. Fifth, Pakistan's airspace ban has cut off Afghanistan from India, imposing economic costs, and making a political point of the indispensability of Pakistan. 

Khalilzad declared he has achieved progress on four fronts: assurances from the Taliban that Afghanistan will not become a staging ground again for militant groups like al-Qaida or the Islamic State; withdrawal of US troops; all-Afghan dialogue to reach agreement on a peaceful future; and a permanent ceasefire. The US goal is to complete peace talks with the Taliban by September 1, which would begin the withdrawal of US and NATO troops. In five months after that, the Taliban and other Afghans are expected to come to an agreement. 

Pakistan finds itself in a much happier position. Having proved their indispensability, Pakistan has been a recipient of aid from US's principal allies Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, as well as an IMF bailout. China remains Pakistan's principal ally and benefactor, but the US, despite Trump's mean tweets about Pakistan, is getting ready to fete Imran Khan in Washington next week.