In the last eighteen years, the situation in Afghanistan has remained as tenuous as it had been in the three decades that preceded them. In fact, things do not look any different since 2017 when the so-called “mother-of-all-bombs” was dropped in Nangarhar to deter the extremists. Or in 2001 when 25 international stakeholders came together and “determined to help the Afghan people end the tragic conflicts in their country and promote national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability and respect for human rights, (and)… put an end to the use of Afghanistan as a base for terrorism.”
In America We Trust?
A lot of things have gone wrong both in and for Afghanistan since the 1970s. In recent times, however, the US has found itself at the center of most of these troubles, many of which have been of its own making. There is massive evidence that suggests American policies and practices have consistently demonstrated strategic and tactical disconnect from the demands and aspirations of Afghanistan. This is not to suggest ill-intention or dictatorial behavior to (re)build Afghanistan in its own image. Rather, it shows how ill-equipped it has been (and continues to be) to handle matters related to expeditionary counter-insurgency operations.
Recently, the American push for peace and reconciliation has been contrasted by its stance on justice and accountability. What could have been a massive trial of crimes against humanity (allegedly) committed by the members of American military and intelligence on Afghan soil, the US arm-twisted its way out of this situation at the International Criminal Court (ICC). By “threatening reprisals” against the ICC and cancelling the visa of the chief prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, the US ensured that the proposed investigation against it and “its allies” was dropped, even as 1.17 million statements were submitted to the Court in connection with the alleged crimes.
While the US has demonstrated a flippant, self-contradictory attitude from time-to-time, the man of the hour in the present scenario, Zalmay Khalilzad—US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation—inspires little confidence. From (effectively) sabotaging the return of Zahir Shah as the political leader of Afghanistan in 2001 to his purported negotiations with then-President Hamid Karzai to be made (an unaccountable) Prime Minister of Afghanistan in 2009 to his successive engagements with the Taliban since 1990s, Khalilzad has a checkered past.
In some ways, the US, itself, seems to take two steps backwards for every step it takes forward. For example, President Obama’s 2011 contrarian commands, along with the surge, had given a deadline for American troops to exit Afghanistan. In any counter-insurgency situation, the insurgents have the time even if the counter-insurgents have the most advanced watch. The US wants to get out of Afghanistan, and it must. It just does not know how.
Au Contraire: Is India Turning the Tide?
In what appears to be a prelude to a shift in India’s effective stance towards Afghanistan, we are witnessing a change in discourse. Following the controversial “reorganization” of the Indian province of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), speculations have been aplenty about the intended audience of this internal act.
The internal re-organization of J&K was more than a mere attempt at setting the house straight. It is said that India had the geo-political space to tinker with the political make-up of what is essentially a disputed territory, knowing full well the bilateral, and even international ripples it might create.
It did not make strategic sense for India to put all its eggs in one basket, especially when the other regional powers, particularly Russia and Iran, have been diversifying their points-of-contact in Afghanistan. Moreover, the diminishing credibility of the political mainstream, on one hand, and the increasing legitimacy accorded to the Taliban, on the other, demanded that India make a shift in its approach. The former President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, too, “provided a discursive escape” for India to reach out to the other “brothers” in Afghanistan, i.e. the Taliban.
Although a little late, India appears to have finally made it to the proverbial party. A shift in India’s stance vis-à-vis the conflict in Afghanistan can be traced back to the speech delivered by the late ex-External Affairs Minister of India, Sushma Swaraj, at the Foreign Minister’s Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in May 2019. Reiterating India’s desire to see a stable Afghanistan, she stated “India stands committed to any process” that can assist in the re-development of this country. This was a significant discursive shift in the approach of a country, which hitherto desired that the peace process(es) be “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled.”
In the backdrop of an Afghan peace deal that the US is hastening to conclude, the feting of the Pakistani Prime Minister in the US made America’s “America First” (before every moral stand) pretty evident. India is no stranger to the American about-face and had reasons to be apprehensive about the “optics of rehabilitation, re-engagement on a strategic level” between the US and Pakistan. The Indian move in J&K most likely, then, came as a reaction to President Trump’s unsolicited mediation offers. Nevertheless, it was equally an attempt by India to take back the reins of Kashmir. The drummed-up narrative on national security, which became the pretext for positioning as many as 38,000 extra troops in the region, were meant for something more than just maintaining uneasy calm in the Kashmir Valley, but to decouple Kashmir from Afghanistan; a bait Pakistan has often used to keep India at bay in the regional great game.
With Pakistan stopped in its tracks, India appeared to be ready for another move—an (indirect) outreach to the Taliban. Although not entirely independent of the Pakistani influence, Shakti Sinha (Afghanistan’s Ex-Head, UN Governance & Development) conceded that the Taliban ought to be recognized for what it is worth—a group that has been granted legitimacy not only by international stakeholders, but by Afghans themselves. He further added that the mainstreaming of the Taliban could potentially make them mend their ways since they will be constrained by formal regulations and commitments.
Drawing a fine line between engagement and endorsement, the discourse that seems to be shaping up is one in which India is projecting itself as a partner that no Afghan actor should do without. Sinha, in fact, went on to say that one should not be on the wrong side of India, demonstrating a more robust and confident line of thought vis-à-vis the situation in Afghanistan.
The Taliban, for its part, issued an intriguing statement in response to what it described as an “ongoing Kashmir crisis,” asking “other countries” to not to link the “issue in Kashmir with that of Afghanistan...(and turn) Afghanistan into a theater of competition.” This statement has been interpreted in two contrasting ways. On one hand, it is said to be directed at India, which, in exerting its dominance over Kashmir, appears to have leveraged its move to outwit Pakistan in Afghanistan, thereby unwittingly connecting Kashmir and Afghanistan. On the other, it can be read as a prelude to the aforementioned change in the Indian narratives, signaling that the process of engagement with the Taliban has, perhaps, already been underway.
A statement made by Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Asad Majeed Khan, about the possible “re-deployment of troops” to the country’s eastern borders, linked the conflict in Afghanistan with the dispute over Kashmir all over again. Running opposite to the Taliban’s statement, could the evolving Pakistani reaction be a conscious attempt to show who’s boss? Or was it the Taliban that showed Pakistan that it can indeed buck the deep state?
As a peace deal looks more realistic than ever before, it is advisable for India to not be as diffident as it had once been. The situation in Afghanistan has often been described as a “line in the sand,” one which changes too often. India needs to be agile in “playing the game” as Sinha pointed out, knowing full well it will have to walk on eggshells as it changes course. However, basking in the goodwill it has generated in Afghanistan, it can be assured that a change in approach will be received kindly by the larger Afghan population, which is both embracing and resigning itself to the unfolding changes.
Chayanika Saxena is a President’s Graduate Fellow and doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.
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