Thanks to US’ intervention, India will have a seat at the 10-day Istanbul conference beginning 24 April

Following President Joe Biden’s much-anticipated announcement that the United States would withdraw remaining troops from war-torn Afghanistan on September 11, the world is getting ready for another peace process expected to finalise the ways and means of breaking the impasse on Afghan reconciliation. To be held under the aegis of the United Nations, the 10-day Istanbul conference beginning 24 April is part of the Joe Biden administration’s attempt to extricate itself from the quagmire in Afghanistan. Thanks to Washington’s intervention, India will also participate in the conference.

Biden’s plan is to pull out all remaining 2,500 American soldiers by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This is the most significant foreign policy decision of the Biden administration so far. Immediately after Biden disclosed his plan, the NATO chief, Jens Stoltenberg, also announced to withdraw its roughly 7,000 forces from Afghanistan within months. Exit of all US troops comes with clear risks because it is sure to boost the Taliban’s morale and undo democratic gains made in the last 20 years. But Americans cannot keep postponing the withdrawal, and as rightly emphasised by Biden, the “war in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking.” All politics is local.

Major Flaw In Biden’s Approach

The Biden’s drawdown plan essentially is to make Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani agree to dissolve his government, scrap the constitution, and establish a new administrative mechanism that would include the Taliban. There is no doubt that an inclusive consultative process, embraced both by national stakeholders and external players, represents the best hope to salvage the fledgling Afghan peace process. But the major flaw in American approach is that it calls for an interim administration by dissolving the Afghan government. This approach seems unsustainable as it may bring more chaos in Afghanistan.

Ghani is likely to present a three-phase counter proposal in Turkey. According to it, in the first phase, a consensus should emerge on a political settlement and an internationally monitored ceasefire. The second phase would involve a presidential election and the implementation arrangements for moving towards the new political system. The third phase envisages a constitutional framework, reintegration of refugees and development for Afghanistan. But the biggest hindrance is the Taliban’s continued rejection of a ceasefire.

The Taliban have continued to mount high-profile bomb attacks. Most of these attacks have taken place in major Afghan towns and cities, whose responsibility is rarely claimed. But there is little doubt that the Taliban are behind many of these attacks. Targeted assassinations have also been employed by the Taliban to terrorise their opponents, and this is seen as a shift in the Taliban’s military strategy. Although the Taliban have avoided capturing any major urban centres since the signing of the 2020 US-Taliban deal, they have nonetheless become active in urban areas, laying the groundwork to capture them when the opportunity arises in the future. In other words, the Taliban are demonstrating that they would seize by force what they cannot gain through negotiations.

Afghan Peace And India-Pakistan Rivalry

The irony of the situation is that the Taliban are drawing support, not only from their traditional benefactors in Pakistan, but also from Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. The Taliban have become a formidable force, crafting clear positions and not conceding any ground on their fundamental objectives. That is why almost all regional stakeholders have accepted the reality of the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul, and are urging the insurgent group to moderate its hard line position. No regional player wants a hasty withdrawal of the US troops because they will have to face blowback if the Afghan security forces are unable to fill the vacuum. That is why Pakistan’s first reaction to Biden’s withdrawal plan is to ensure that the exit will be accompanied by progress in the Afghan peace process. This means that Islamabad wants the foreign troops to stay as long as the key Afghan stakeholders are incapable of making tangible progress.

But any longing for peace in Afghanistan has to be viewed in the geopolitical context of India-Pakistan rivalry. Although India and Pakistan have agreed to a ceasefire along the Line of Control, there is no guarantee that it will have an impact on their respective positions vis-à-vis Afghanistan. But most worryingly, the dyadic relationships among India, Russia, and China are now affected by contemporary structural trends: the competition between Washington and Beijing, and China’s strategic rivalry with India, which will influence developments in Afghanistan.

After the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001, New Delhi has been working hard to increase its soft power resonance in Afghanistan through assistance and infrastructure building. So far, India has provided $3 billion assistance, earning positive image among the Afghans. India continues to support the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, refusing to legitimise the Taliban as a political actor. But the endorsement by the United Nations has already vindicated the Taliban’s position as a legitimate stakeholder. Nonetheless, India cannot be seen compromising on the ideological front even as it seems to have accorded tacit recognition to the Taliban.

India Needs To Be Realistic

An interim administration in Kabul without elections will only cement the Taliban’s hold and Pakistan’s dominance in Afghanistan’s political future. India’s biggest challenge has been to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for terrorists who could incite tensions with Pakistan-supported insurgent violence in Kashmir. This may become reality if the Taliban capture power in Kabul. During the 9th Heart of Asia conference in Tajikistan on 30 March, India’s foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, had drawn attention to the problem of “continued involvement of foreign fighters” in Afghanistan, while underlining the need for “a genuine double peace” (peace within and around Afghanistan).

But as the US looks desperate to end its military involvement in Afghanistan, there is no appetite in Washington to work for such peace either by sustaining a partnership with the Kabul regime or by pressuring Pakistan to end its support for the Taliban.

New Delhi wants to continue its developmental partnership with Kabul in order to garner Afghan sympathy and political support in its strategic rivalry with Islamabad. But Pakistan poses the biggest hindrance to India’s Afghan policy. And since Islamabad is the closest partner of Beijing, New Delhi cannot expect much from either of them. One has not heard of ‘strategic depth’ from Pakistanis for a long time, but a Taliban takeover will certainly allow China to expand its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) all the way up to Iran through Afghanistan. Continuous concessions to the Taliban have already delegitimised the Afghan State to the point of irrelevance. Thus, India should remain realistic about its expectations from the UN-led talks in Turkey.