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A Subverted Afghanistan Run by Terror Groups Will Be a Disaster for India, and the World

Image for representation (Reuters)

Image for representation (Reuters)

India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan are best protected if India and other nations ensure that Afghans stand on their feet and make their own decisions.

The plain-speaking letter from the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani spells out that the United States envisages an ‘inclusive’ government in Afghanistan that will allow the Taliban a 50 per cent share in power in exchange for a ceasefire. An interim government for a transitional period of three years will work out new institutional arrangements. All of this will be endorsed through an international conference under the aegis of the United Nations, hosted by Turkey. The Afghan constitution will be revised, with the present one serving as ‘an initial template’.

The Biden Administration first maintained that the Taliban had reneged on the three major commitments made by it in the February 2020 Doha Agreement, namely, cutting off its links with al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, reducing violence, and engaging in meaningful intra-Afghan negotiations. Blinken’s letter shows that President Biden has now embraced the policy followed by his predecessor. US forces began to pull out within weeks of the conclusion of the US-Taliban Doha Agreement. This resulted in a spike in targeted assassinations, a growing area of control under the Taliban and greater collection of taxes by it, and dramatically reduced intelligence inputs for the Afghan defenders.

The agreement delegitimised President Ghani and the Afghan Government. The head of the Taliban, Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, termed it the ‘Termination of Occupation Agreement’. To the Taliban, the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is an unmistakable sign of US defeat. The Taliban has little incentive now to engage with President Ghani, whose regime it maintains was set up by the occupiers. Moreover, it claims to be part of Afghanistan’s social fabric representing the Pashtuns, to which ethnicity Ghani belongs. The US envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, has offered honourable places to the leaders of the other ethnicities to buy their support.

Ghani is opposed to the idea of an interim government and has offered elections. The Taliban sees no reason why it should agree to elections now (it held no elections after it seized power in 1996). It views the emerging process as a stepping stone to full power, nothing less.

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The US démarche has weakened Ghani, if not given his presidency a death blow. Ghani compromised in the past partly for fear that all US assistance to Afghanistan might otherwise be imperilled. This is why he accepted the Doha process and released 5,000-plus Taliban prisoners, without getting anything in return except the promise of peace. The Afghan government has dwindling international support, over-concentrated authority, and failed to build bridges with the opposition and enlarge its tent. Meanwhile, the economy is in a shambles—construction, logistics, and transportation have collapsed, and the flight of capital and talent is high.

The Afghan people desperately want peace and reconciliation. The question is: at what cost? Pakistan wants a pliant government in Kabul, capable of limiting Indian influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban, under Pakistan’s tutelage, will severely abrogate human rights, end the experiment with pluralism and democracy, destroy emerging Afghan institutions, and reverse the gains made since 2001. This may not be acceptable to Afghan patriots and republicans. Pakistan has got into the habit of being the gatekeeper of Afghanistan’s international interactions. The Pakistan army continues to treat terrorist groups as strategic assets. Even at the height of the insurgency and the killing of American troops in Afghanistan, the United States seemed helpless—concerned, but resigned.

India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan are best protected if India ensures, in association with other involved countries, that Afghans stand on their feet and make their own decisions. If they do so, India will have nothing to worry about, for Afghans value their sovereignty, independence, and their relationship with India. India has so far assisted in constructing roads, dams, schools, clinics, and the Afghan parliament. Through its training and scholarship programmes, India has helped create a new crop of young Afghans to run Afghan institutions. India must continue to stand by Afghanistan and sustain its stabilisation with a long-term commitment.

In addition to continuing its development cooperation activities, India may have to begin investing in the defenders of Afghan republicanism. The Afghan National Army (ANA) is inadequately equipped. It has barely enough to ensure the defence of provincial headquarters, the arterial roads of the country, and its main cities. When pulling out, US forces carted off all their weapons and supplies, leaving behind nothing for the ANA. India could step up its assistance by setting up field hospitals, providing medevac and drones for surveillance, supplying mortars and light artillery, etc. India is still the country where the largest number of officers are commissioned in the ANA.

India should work to ensure that the conference to be hosted by Turkey reiterates the red lines mentioned in the outcome document of an earlier Istanbul Conference (of 2011), which spoke of abjuring violence, cutting links with terrorist groups, eliminating safe havens for terrorists, and respecting the Afghan constitution. The Loya Jirga on the peace process, held in Kabul in April-May 2019 (the largest ever in Afghan history), specified certain limitations on constitutional changes. These included: no change in the name of Afghanistan and maintaining democracy, the right to freedom of speech, and the rights of women to education and work. The Taliban’s armed cadres must be reintegrated, much the same way that the cadres of the Hizb-é-Islami in Afghanistan, the Islamic Renaissance Party in Tajikistan, and the Maoist combatants of the People’s Liberation Army in Nepal were.

A subverted Afghanistan in the hands of terrorist networks will be a catastrophe for India, the region, and the world. The 9/11 attacks amply illustrated this, as did, from India’s point of view, the free rein given to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in eastern Afghanistan in the late 1990s. In 1998, American Tomahawk cruise missiles targeting Osama bin Laden near Khost—as a reprisal for the August 7 East African bombings by al-Qaeda—actually killed Pakistani trainers and LeT cadres. At the time, Afghanistan had become ‘a university of jihad’. In the medium to long term, the Taliban is unlikely to remain under the tutelage of Pakistan. The restoration of status quo ante in Afghanistan could lead to the unravelling of the state system in Pakistan.

Disclaimer:Jayant Prasad is former Director General, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, and former Indian envoy to Nepal and Afghanistan. Views are personal.