Washington's desperation to secure peace in Afghanistan plays to Islamabad's advantage, threatens New Delhi's strategic interests

Underlining Washington’s desire to build a strong security partnership with India, the John McCain National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) for the 2019 fiscal urged the Donald Trump administration to strengthen its defence partnership with India, noting that such a partnership should enable “strategic, operational and tactical coordination between our militaries.” The annual Act authorises the US military spending but is often used as a vehicle for a broad range of policy matters.

 Washingtons desperation to secure peace in Afghanistan plays to Islamabads advantage, threatens New Delhis strategic interests

File image of US president Donald Trump. AP

India was designated a ‘Major Defence Partner’ towards the end of the Barack Obama administration’s tenure. While the Trump administration is moving ahead with its plans to implement this designation for India, the NDAA for 2019 seeks to give it a legislative cover. The NDAA has also asked the US to work towards mutual security objectives by expanding engagement in multilateral frameworks, including the Quadrilateral Dialogue between India, the US, Japan and Australia, to defend shared values and common interests in the rules-based order. It has advised Washington to pursue strategic initiatives to help develop India’s defence capabilities and conduct joint exercises with India in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean region, and the Western Pacific.

So far, so good. However, what seems to have escaped attention of observers is the fact that the US Congress has avoided highlighting India’s role in Afghanistan in the Bill. An earlier version of the Bill highlighted the US desire of “furthering cooperative efforts” with India to “promote security and stability in Afghanistan.” But the joint conference report does not underline this point. A conference report refers to the final version of a Bill that is negotiated between the House of Representatives and the Senate through conference committee.

Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani has been keen to begin peace negotiations with the Taliban, and has already offered peace talks without preconditions. But the Taliban views the regime in Kabul as illegitimate and refuses to engage. A key Taliban demand for holding talks has been the removal of all foreign troops. Washington earlier insisted that the Taliban must negotiate with Kabul. However, things are changing very fast. If talking directly to the Taliban was a taboo until recently, it is now seen in Washington as the only way forward to peace in Afghanistan. Also, there is a strong feeling among the influential Trump administration officials that too much emphasis on India’s role in Afghanistan could annoy Pakistan and the Taliban, which could hurt efforts to start purposeful talks with the Taliban.

When he assumed presidency last year, Trump’s instinct was to pull out of Afghanistan. However, he allowed himself to be persuaded by the Pentagon to give another shot at increasing US troops in Afghanistan. One of the major aims of Trump’s Afghan policy announced in August 2017 was to compel the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. He also criticised Pakistan, terming it deceitful while praising India for its development work in Afghanistan. The indictment of Pakistan was followed by then defence secretary Jim Mattis issuing “one last chance” to Islamabad to rein in the Taliban and Haqqani network. But what could India expect from the highly unpredictable Trump whose tendencies have proved destabilising?

If a breakthrough in the talks with the Taliban is achieved, it will help the US get out of its longest war ever, and Trump can take credit for that. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a surprise visit to Afghanistan in early July, expressed the US willingness to participate in direct talks with the Taliban when he said that Washington “will support, facilitate, and participate in these peace discussions” which will also “include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces.”

Consequently, senior US diplomats held a meeting with the Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, fulfilling a major demand of the Taliban to hold negotiations with the US. Although New Delhi has been against Washington holding direct talks with the Taliban, the Doha meeting did not have any representation from the Ghani-led Kabul government. There are credible reports of the Trump administration asking its Indian interlocutors to give up their antagonism to the Taliban and agree to the strategy of co-opting them in order to break the stalemate.

Washington’s eagerness to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban is undoubtedly a major psychological win for Pakistan’s military establishment, which has long insisted that there is no alternative to engaging their proxy: the Afghan Taliban. One need not repeat that Islamabad’s room for strategic manoeuvring vis-à-vis New Delhi has been directly proportional with its political fortunes in Afghanistan. The Chinese and Russians have been highlighting the Islamic State (ISIS) and not the Afghan Taliban as the real threat. With Washington on board, Pakistan feels emboldened to execute its plan to rehabilitate the Taliban into governing structure of the Afghan State.

It is widely expected that Imran Khan’s first overseas visit as prime minister will be to Kabul, where his main agenda would be to deploy his charm offensive to convince the Kabul regime to accede to the Taliban’s major demands. Imran’s sympathetic rhetoric toward the Taliban, whom he calls “our brothers” and “our own people”, has earned him the nickname “Taliban Khan”. Imran’s success would be a strategic coup for Pakistani ‘deep state’, bringing it close to its imagined military ‘strategic depth’ vis-à-vis India in Afghanistan.

The politically-turbulent geostrategic environment prevailing in Afghanistan presents huge challenge for India. It is vital for the Narendra Modi government to make sure that India’s security interests are not endangered when the Afghan Taliban is granted international legitimacy, which is going to happen sooner than expected. There is nothing wrong with dealing with all sides in the Afghan dispute, including the Taliban, provided New Delhi is assured that Afghan soil will not be used against India.

India, which has avoided any military engagement in Afghanistan, continues to deploy various ‘soft power’ tools in Afghanistan, in contrast to Pakistan’s hard power tactics. Hence, there must be a renewed emphasis on framing Indian-Afghan ties around culture, democracy and connectivity: three major pillars of India’s strategic narrative to wield soft power influence in Afghanistan. It is time New Delhi boosted its efforts to project India’s developmental presence in Afghanistan as practical implementation of ancient Indian worldview of universal goodness. India’s assertion of helping rebuild Afghan economy, coupled with its commitment to strengthen Afghanistan’s democratic institutions must be an essential part of this strategic argumentation, without any hint of a zero-sum competition with Pakistan.

Afghanistan is of huge geopolitical importance to India and there is an immense reservoir of goodwill among ordinary Afghans for India. Moreover, India has always respected Afghanistan’s agency as a sovereign nation-state with an independent set of foreign policy preferences. The Kabul regime has equally found it useful to deepen its partnership with India to develop asymmetric capabilities to gain strategic parity vis-à-vis Islamabad.

New Delhi can ill afford to remain a mute spectator to the current developments in Afghanistan, which indicate that the US is desperate to appease the Taliban without proper assessment of attendant risks and dangers. Accommodating the irreconcilable Taliban in Afghan government is not in India’s interest but will work fine with Pakistan. The hijack of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 en route to Delhi from Kathmandu by Pakistan-based terrorists, and its forced landing in Taliban-controlled Kandahar airport, is not yet a distant memory.

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Updated Date: Aug 05, 2018 17:39:45 IST