Afghan Peace Talks: Revisiting the Indian and Pakistani Stakes in Afghanistan

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Image credit: AlJazeera

by Dr. Mudassir Fatah     1 February 2019

For the first time in the last seventeen years of war in Afghanistan, peace agreement looks possible. After the six days of continuous deliberations in Doha, both sides, Taliban leaders and Zalmay Khalilzad (US Special representative and the chief American negotiator) seemed hopeful regarding the peace deal. But we should not be so optimistic regarding the same yet, as Khalilzad said, “Meetings here were more productive than they have been in the past. We made significant progress on vital issues”. He rightly added, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Negotiators are still miles to go, as different challenges are still hovering over the same because Afghanistan is no longer an intra-state conflict, it has long ago taken the shape of inter-state conflict involving multiple international actors.

As peace deal with the Taliban seems an agreed only option by the global powers, after it clearly seemed to the United States that the Afghan war can’t be solved with bombs and guns, what this peace deal with the Taliban means to India and Pakistan, will be interesting to see.

Since the fall of the Taliban, India has heavily invested in Afghanistan and has also given $3 billion in Aid to Afghanistan. India is not the part of the peace process with the Taliban as India still doesn’t consider them the legitimate stakeholders of the Afghan people/society. Although, in November 2018, India participated in the peace talks in Moscow, changing the decade’s old policy, but India isn’t part of the peace process between the US and the Taliban. Moscow led peace process isn’t so much important because Russia isn’t the direct party of the current Afghan conflict. The US and the Taliban are still Head-to-Head in Afghanistan, so the peace process between these two matter the most, of which India is far away (emphasis added), because of multiple reasons, first, Pakistan doesn’t want India to be the part of the talks, the US respects the Pakistani view most, at least in this matter, and does not want to annoy Pakistan, if they do that, they understand that the talks will not go anywhere, second, India does not recognize the Taliban as a legitimate force.

So, the question arises what will happen to the Indian involvement, investment, and aid to Afghanistan. Will it all be in vain once the peace deal with the Taliban is reached? Will India still maintain its diplomatic ties with the new Afghan government, which will include the Taliban forces in near future? Will India immediately lose a neighbour to Pakistan, which it never wants. Nobody is having the absolute answers for these questions, only time will tell.

Pakistan has been at odds in Afghanistan at least since the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Pakistan vehemently supported the Afghan guerillas with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United States against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and was successful in getting the ‘Strategic Depth’ they wanted in their immediate neighbourhood. Since then the relations between the two took a new turn. Pakistan favoured the rise of the Taliban after the civil war broke out in Afghanistan, as the war-torn country needed a stable force/government. Since then Taliban has been the favourite of every Pakistani government.

Till recently it was an open secret that the Taliban had good relations with the Pakistani government and they did whatever way they were directed from Islamabad. But a new story emerged very recently. Pakistan released Abdul Ghani Baradar, Afghanistan’s Taliban leader, also the co-founder of the Taliban movement, who was jailed in Pakistan since 2010. This is, without doubt, a step by Pakistan towards the peace, but this also indicates something different and otherwise. Pakistan, a key component of the peace talks will now have to talk to the person they had jailed, as Baradar is now going to lead the talks for the peace process, as suggested by the recent reports. How much comfortable Pakistan will be with him, and how challenging it will be for Pakistan, is open to debate.

Before the fresh and the most successful round had started in Doha, Pakistani media had reported that the fresh round of peace talks will take place in Islamabad, the claim rigorously rejected by the Afghan Taliban, “We wanted to make it clear that we will not hold any meeting with Zalmay Khalilzad in Islamabad,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement, Reuters reported. This statement vindicates two things, first, Pakistan is no longer enjoying their control on the Afghan Taliban, as they had previously, second, the Afghan Taliban is capable enough now to reject a Pakistani demand, and to survive. Whether Pakistani government had requested for this or not isn’t of much importance here, but the statement from the Taliban spokesperson regarding and rejecting the same is very important, and the two conclusions which I drew out of it, both are challenges and the worrisome for the Pakistani establishment.

With every passing day, the contours of the Afghan conflict are changing. Taliban is getting international recognition, the US has already lost their longest war, Pakistan is no longer enjoying their control on the Afghan Taliban as they were enjoying historically, India is already out of the scene of peace process, an end to the conflict seems possible. But the dominant question which needs to be answered is, WHAT NEXT, for both India and Pakistan.

It is not only going to be a challenge to India but for Pakistan also. The regional powers must understand that they need to work neck and neck in Afghanistan if they want to see peace in the region at all. The biggest question in all this gamble is, how will India deal with the Afghan government consisting of the Taliban leaders after the successful peace talks? Will India backtrack, the option, India no longer have. It will be a win-win position for whole South Asian region if all will come to a table and forget the history for creating a new history, but who is ready for the short-term sacrifices for the long-term gains, is open and debatable.