With time running out for the US to move out of Afghanistan by May 1, the temperature is ramping up with the Afghan administration and the Taliban locked in a battle of wills. At stake in a war-torn country is the decades of sincere rebuilding efforts by India.
In keeping with its obligation towards furthering peace, stability and prosperity in the region and globally the Indian government made its thoughts on the peace process in Afghanistan public when external affairs minister Dr. S Jaishankar stated, “India backs a regional process to be convened under the UN to achieve a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire in Afghanistan as the situation in the war-torn country continues to be cause for grave concern.”
Dr. Jaishankar’s comments came in Dushanbe, along the sidelines of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, a regional initiative of 15 countries, including China, Russia, Iran and Central Asian states, to find a lasting solution to the internal crisis in Afghanistan. This was the first reaction from the Indian side to the UN-led initiative proposed by the Biden administration.
The Biden administration had detailed out the broad contours of a peace plan for Afghanistan signalling the formation of an interim government which would bring the current administration and the Taliban to the negotiating table. US secretary of state Antony Blinken had drafted the letter to be presented to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and it was delivered by Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy for Afghanistan.
Among the broad outline of Blinken’s letter was the request to Ghani to display “urgent leadership in the coming weeks and study the proposals outlined which included a UN-led conference of representatives which included Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the US to work out a unified approach to support peace in Afghanistan.”
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Progress has been slow. US troops are set to leave Afghanistan by May 1, amid a Taliban warning that if they are not out by the stipulated deadline then it could lead to a resurgence in fighting and violence. For the record, the Taliban and the Afghan administration had kickstarted talks in Doha, Qatar last year but it ended up in a stalemate. Quite naturally, a worried Biden administration is looking to force the pace. President Ghani has rejected stepping down, arguing that any transfer of power would have to take place through elections as required by the constitution. Taliban officials have said they would not participate in an interim government but would recommend members. It is understood that Ghani will propose a new presidential election within six months under a peace plan he will put forward as a counter-offer to a US proposal that he has reportedly rejected.
While the current Afghan administration wants the country to remain a republic, with elections for president and parliament. The Taliban hold on to their philosophy of the Islamist system headed by an un-elected leader.
India has made significant investments in Afghanistan and are genuine stakeholders towards endorsing a lasting peace process. This policy found significance in Jaishankar’s comments in Dushanbe where he stated that, “Durable peace in Afghanistan requires a ‘genuine ‘double peace’” or “peace within Afghanistan and peace around Afghanistan. It requires harmonising the interests of all, both within and around that country.”
To that extent, India has backed Blinken’s observations in the US government’s communique delivered to President Ghani. A regionally rejuvenated and involved India cannot be kept out of the Afghan peace process as too much has been invested by New Delhi in furthering stability in the war-torn country.
“India welcomes any move towards a genuine political settlement and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire in Afghanistan. We appreciate the international recognition of foundational principles that will determine their contours,” reiterated Jaishankar.
He added, “We support a regional process to be convened under the aegis of the United Nations. UN stewardship would help to take into account all relevant UN resolutions and improve the odds for a lasting outcome.”
According to Jaishankar, “Ensuring Afghanistan is free of terrorism, violent extremism and drug and criminal syndicates is a “collective imperative. A stable, sovereign and peaceful Afghanistan is truly the basis for peace and progress in our region.”
It is becoming increasingly evident that US forces cannot be present in Afghanistan much longer. And in the light of this eventual development India must protect its billions of dollars worth of investments in the country and not to mention the tremendous amount of goodwill it has gained from the Afghan people. New Delhi and Kabul have enjoyed a decades long substantial friendship.
The deadline for the US to move out of Afghanistan was set in a February 2020 deal struck with the Taliban under former President Donald Trump. An eventual withdrawal is fraught with risk for the Afghan people who could be caught up again in the cold embrace of a violent civil-war.
"The question is how and in what circumstances do we meet that agreement that was made by President Trump to leave under a deal that looks like it's not being able to be worked out to begin with." Biden had said.
It is possible that Washington could play for time but Ronald Neumann, a former US ambassador to Kabul told Reuters, “If it is certain that we are going to leave, which will pull NATO (troops) out, too, no matter what, then it would, I think, trigger everybody arming for more war."
For the record, 2020 marked a 45% increase in civilian casualties in Afghanistan over 2019 and 2021 does look showcase any optimism that the violence will abate.
A United Nations report stated there are at least 6,500 Pakistani fighters, including members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, active in Afghanistan. Their involvement points to a Pakistan connection in stoking violence through their military which allegedly has deep links with the Taliban’s Haqqani network.
Peace in Afghanistan is important for the region according to Jaishankar who emphasised that, “Ensuring Afghanistan is free of terrorism, violent extremism and drug and criminal syndicates is a collective imperative. A stable, sovereign and peaceful Afghanistan is truly the basis for peace and progress in our region.”
A stable Afghanistan would also drive home the purpose behind India’s support of this war-torn nation. New Delhi has made substantial gains over the past two decades in the country which include the democratic framework under which elections are held through universal suffrage, sovereignty in domestic and foreign policy and protection of the rights of women, children and minorities. Added to this is the development partnership that India shares with Afghanistan. Pledges worth $3 billion have been made by the government of Narendra Modi including more than 550 community development projects covering all 34 provinces, to ensure that the country could embark on the route to self-sustenance.
Trade, commerce and investment between New Delhi and Kabul are vigorous drivers of prosperity and peace. These were crucial themes in the Heart of Asia dialogue. Connectivity to Iran’s port in Chabahar and air-freight corridors between India and Afghan cities would also be a cornerstone of this cooperation.
In keeping with its stated policy of non-interference in conflicts that take place overseas India has repeatedly illustrated hope that the Afghan question can find a long lasting and acceptable solution. New Delhi also recorded its presence at the peace talks in Doha last year where Jaishankar observed that, “If the peace process is to be successful, then it is necessary to ensure that the negotiating parties continue to engage in good faith, with a serious commitment towards reaching a political solution,” he said.
In the case of Afghanistan nothing could be further from the truth as it stares at a future blurred by uncertainty.