Emboldened Taliban, impending US drawdown and uncertainty for region means India must engage terrorist outfit in talks

After six days of unprecedented talks with the Afghan Taliban in Doha, the United States special Afghan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, is ready with a framework deal that commits the Taliban not to allow terrorists to use Afghan territory for attacks on the US and its allies as well as an American commitment to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Sounding optimistic, Khalilzad is reported to have said, “Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.”

However, the devil lies in the details. As conceded by Khalilzad himself, the framework would need “to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement”. The Taliban negotiators have demanded more time to discuss the American demands of a ceasefire and talks with the Afghan government, which have always proved to be the real stumbling blocks in ensuring lasting peace in Afghanistan. It would therefore require herculean efforts on the part of Khalilzad to make the Taliban agree to engage Afghan government representatives.

There is no doubt that the peace negotiations are not going to be a smooth affair. As the talks continued, the Taliban recently struck with a devastating suicide terror attacks on an Afghan intelligence base, killing around 100 members of security personnel, exposing the fragility of the Kabul regime as well as the peace process itself. The beleaguered Afghan security forces are not capable of defeating the Taliban militarily. The Taliban has an undeniable military and diplomatic edge over the Kabul regime, while its safe havens remain intact in Pakistan with no near-term possibility of being eliminated.

It is abundantly clear to all observers that Pakistan remains central to peace with the Taliban. That is why most of the regional powers are willing to march to Rawalpindi’s beat. Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan has claimed credit for bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiation table with the US. Last month, he had declared that “Pakistan has helped in the dialogue between Taliban and the US in Abu Dhabi. Let us pray that this leads to peace and ends almost three decades of suffering of the brave Afghan people”. Even, the US has frequently and publicly thanked Pakistan for facilitating talks with the Taliban. As pointed out in a recent column, nothing is known “about the price that Rawalpindi has set for its cooperation and what the US is willing to offer”. That is why India insists on being kept updated on US-Taliban negotiations.

The real problem is that the hardliners within the Taliban have a preformed set of beliefs that line up perfectly with Rawalpindi’s core foreign policy objectives. Pakistan’s security establishment often sees independent Afghanistan as a strategic threat and remains suspicious of its growing alliance with India. The Taliban’s negotiating strategy with Khalilzad attests to its obstinate behaviour. Will things change in future?

During the recently-concluded talks in Doha, the Taliban appointed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as its chief negotiator. It needs to be recalled that Baradar was in touch with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai at the time of his arrest in early 2010 in a joint US-Pakistan operation. For instance, during his visit to Pakistan in August 2013, Karzai could not secure Baradar’s release. Hina Rabbani Khar, a former Pakistani foreign minister, was reported to have said, “Pakistan shall play the role of facilitator for talks between the Afghan peace council. That is realistic. But if Karzai thinks Mullah Baradar could return in the plane with him, that is dramatic and unrealistic.”

Eventually, Baradar was released in late 2018 by Pakistan following some hectic back-channel negotiations. It remains to be seen how the Taliban behaves when Baradar directs the next round of talks, scheduled for the last week of February.

By engaging with representatives of various regional governments while refusing to talk to the Afghan government, the Taliban has sought to elevate its position above that of the government in Kabul and enhance its international legitimacy. And it has been quite successful in these efforts. But Afghan president Ashraf Ghani is unhappy with the way the US has been conducting its peace diplomacy with the Taliban. The Ghani government has also been kept out of talks. Sounding a note of caution, Ghani said that he wanted peace quickly, but with prudence.

According to him, “Prudence is important so we do not repeat past mistakes. We are stressing on prudence because we are fully aware of what Dr Mohammad Najibullah (Afghan president at the time of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, who was hanged by the Taliban) experienced, we all know how he was deceived, the UN guaranteed that peace will be ensured, but unfortunately a disaster happened.”

If Khalilzad wants the Taliban to agree to the ceasefire and a small presence of the US troops for counter-terrorism purposes, the latter is not expected to agree without extracting sizable concessions from the US — rewriting of the Afghan Constitution and having a significant share in the governing structure. The Taliban sees no urgency to compromise as it is aware that the American people have become extremely fatigued of watching their troops struggle in a faraway land.

President Donald Trump’s frustration with the US’ Afghan mission is not unjustified. More than 2,400 US soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan. The war, that began following the 11 September, 2001 terror attacks, has consumed around $1 trillion of American money; the US spends around $45 billion per annum including $5 billion for Afghan security forces. And this is not a small amount by any standard.

If half the current 14,000 American troops leave Afghanistan soon, it will only reinforce the Taliban’s perception that its time has finally arrived. Precipitous pulling-out means a continued threat of terrorism, a regional power vacuum, the revival of the Afghan civil war and a refugee crisis. But Trump is not interested in providing ethical cover to sell the continuation of the controversial Afghan war to an increasingly sceptical American public.

Contrary to what he indicated in August 2017 that “arbitrary timetables” would not guide American military strategy in Afghanistan, Trump has decided to withdraw troops arbitrarily.

However it will be extremely dangerous to abandon strategic decision-making with reference to Afghan conflict’s political dimension. Trump’s Afghan policy for the remainder of his presidential term must be one that avoids the risks of an unconditional withdrawal without sustaining the costs of staying invested. This requires reorienting Washington’s strategic approach towards other Afghan players. A narrow approach to brokering a negotiated settlement with the Taliban alone will not be sufficient. Besides, the US cannot avoid diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan’s important neighbours, each of whom hold a significant stake.

India is one of the key stakeholders in a stable and secure Afghanistan, a fact first conceded by Pakistan’s foreign minister, and later contradicted by a spokesperson of Pakistan’s Foreign Office. However, despite enjoying immense goodwill among Afghans, India currently finds itself increasingly marginalised in negotiations involving key regional players.

In order to reduce the uncertain landscape arising from a possible deal with the Taliban, Indian strategic planners will be required to address the challenges associated with the legitimised return of the Taliban in Kabul. India no longer has the luxury of sending only “non-official” delegations to Afghan-related talks, wherever they are held. India’s army chief, General Bipin Rawat, has rightly asserted that India “cannot be out of the bandwagon” because if “you are not sitting on the high table you will not know what is happening”. The voices that are asking the Narendra Modi government to engage with the Taliban must become louder.

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