Afghan peace process: New Delhi must be wary of Hamid Karzai's advice to do more, arm-twisting will reduce clout in Kabul

It seems Afghanistan is the flavour of the week in New Delhi, at least in terms of diplomatic footwork. At a seminar by a prominent think-tank, former president Hamid Karzai was heard saying Afghans had perhaps unrealistic, but huge expectations of India. His main point was that New Delhi should do more on its own, without waiting for others to play catch up. He also emphasised that India should be part and parcel of the peace process that seems to be unfolding somewhat faster since the Donald Trump administration stepped up the pace.

Former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. Agencies

Former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai. Agencies

Listening in the audience was veteran US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been given the “singular” task of bringing the peace process on track, to allow US withdrawal somewhere down the line. Significantly, Khalilzad has, so far, visited almost all other countries involved, including Russia and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and the UAE among others. India was not part of those first whirlwind visits.

It seemed Karzai was talking directly to Khalilzad in backing the role of India — and also Russia — as part of the process and as countries who cannot be left out. India has been lauded for its development aid, which includes not only large infrastructure projects, but also recent years, has begun to filter down in terms of community projects across the country. Influence has been built up quietly with training programmes for Afghan public servants, providing schools that educate their children, and medical facilities that keep them healthy.

Quite a few Afghan leaders, including Karzai, have been educated in India, while others have their families in Delhi. It is unsurprising therefore, that Afghans by and large, view Indians in a positive light. And as the former president pointed out, the Taliban are also Afghans. It’s not unusual for Taliban leaders to quietly curse the Pakistani yoke and call for greater Indian assistance.

Khalilzad seems to have kicked off his four-nation tour from India, following which he is to go to China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This grouping is important, in that it recognises both India and China as important players in a game where each is closely allied with one or other of the main players: Pakistan and Afghanistan. While China’s long relationship with Pakistan is well known, less apparent has been the equally long and more trusted India-Afghanistan relationship.

India’s public position has been consistent: that Kabul should be part of discussions, and that Afghans should decide on their own lives. This position has not wavered even in the covert sphere. Despite enough opportunities, New Delhi has not directly supported or encouraged this or that Taliban leader. In the Moscow talks, where members of the Taliban were present, New Delhi chose to send only retired diplomats, thus officially continuing its stated position.

It is against this reality that the US outreach to India should be viewed. Notwithstanding President Trump’s slighting reference to a “library” made by India, the point is that he expects Delhi to contribute more. Reportedly Prime Minister Modi also received a call from the president just before the Khalilzad visit, and there is no doubt whatsoever that some demands disguised imperfectly as requests would have been made.

One likely demand is to lean on the Afghan government to provide what Khalilzad himself called a "broad, inclusive and influential" team that is seen as credible and capable of talking to the Taliban. President Ghani’s dislike of sharing power has long been the subject of dispute. The recent appointment of the highly-knowledgeable and hardline  Amrullah Saleh as Interior Minister means Delhi will be expected to first get him on board.

A second issue likely to be discussed arises from Khalilzad’s former appointment in RAND corporation where he authored many a detailed paper on Afghanistan and other issues. Recently, the influential think-tank produced a detailed document on the outlines of a possible peace agreement. This document called an “Agreement on a Comprehensive Settlement of the Conflict in Afghanistan” was leaked in part to the press. Available information seems to envisage among other things, a new constitution, an 18-month transitional period, and a rotating chairman and several vice-chairmen.

This is what Khalilzad means when he says “inclusivity”, which means that everyone gets a turn at the top. Presidential powers are also to be reduced over time. Ghani and his team are not going to be happy with such an arrangement. Arm-twisting by Delhi in this direction will mean a loss of Delhi’s clout in Kabul. A second proposal is to set up an “Afghan Support Team” made up of select members of the international community and focussing on counter-terrorism.

Since this is a core concern of India, the inclusion of New Delhi in this group could be a “sweetener”.  The paper also envisages an eventual withdrawal of US forces over a tentative 18-month timeframe, though complete withdrawal remains unlikely. It is against this possible withdrawal that speculation arises on whether India would be asked to send troops on the ground. This remains unlikely. The CIA in particular knows full well that inclusion of Indian troops will risk the tentative cooperation that the Pakistan intelligence is providing in terms of pushing the Taliban towards talks. Barring a certain hardline and lacklustre circles, Indian policymakers are against any such deployment, which has much against it, including jeopardising New Delhi’s biggest asset: the confidence engendered by the fact that it is the one country among more than a dozen whose soldiers have never set foot in Afghanistan.

These are all as yet tentative proposals, and may not fully bear fruit. That the Afghans are uneasy about the proposals that are being considered is apparent in Karzai advising India to go it alone and ‘do more’. It’s difficult to see what the former president has in mind. Delhi has neither the purse nor the clout to single-handedly support the Palace at a time when a large group of countries — which includes Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — are determined to oust Ghani and his circle. Not to support them would mean a loss of support at a critical time. It’s a tough call. One option is to  reach out to former allies and friends in the neighbourhood. History has a habit of coming full circle and it's as well to be prepared.

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Updated Date: Jan 11, 2019 20:50:01 IST

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