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    India’s Afghanistan challenge

    India’s Afghanistan challenge

    India’s Afghanistan challenge
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    By Harsh V Pant   IST (Updated)


    For India, the only way in which sustainable peace can come to Afghanistan is if there is “peace within Afghanistan and peace around Afghanistan."

    As the situation in Afghanistan veers towards some sort of a denouement, India has once again reiterated its commitment to Afghanistan and enunciated the principles which it would like to see underpin the peace process.  Earlier this week External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar participated in a UN Security Council debate on the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, where he called for a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire in the war-torn nation to ensure immediate reduction in violence and protection of civilian lives.
    He underscored the unpleasant reality that the intra-Afghan talks have not resulted in a reduction of violence in Afghanistan and argued that it is imperative “that the international community and, in particular, this Council presses for a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire to ensure immediate reduction in violence and protection of civilian lives.”
    Even as he reiterated New Delhi’s support for an “inclusive, Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace process,” he maintained that “any political settlement in Afghanistan must ensure that the gains of the last two decades are protected, and not reversed.” In particular, he focused the world’s attention on the need to immediately dismantle terrorist safe havens and disrupt terrorist supply chains, calling for “zero tolerance for terrorism in all its forms and manifestations including cross-border attacks.”
    At the meeting of NSAs from Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) member countries in Tajikistan, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval  also re-emphasized this point by underlining that there is a “need to preserve gains made in the last two decades in Afghanistan and give top priority to the welfare of its people.”
    For India, the only way in which sustainable peace can come to Afghanistan is if there is “peace within Afghanistan and peace around Afghanistan” which will require “harmonising the interests of all, both within and around that country.” While India remains supportive of the Afghan peace process, Jaishankar once again reiterated that it is imperative to “preserve the constitutional democratic framework and ensure the protection of rights of women, children and minorities.”
    This intervention comes at an important time when direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have reached a critical stage and the ground realities in and around Afghanistan are evolving rapidly. The US and the Taliban signed a landmark deal in Doha on February 29, 2020 following multiple rounds of negotiations that commenced the process of intra-Afghan talks. And the Biden administration soon after coming to office earlier this year declared that they would be withdrawing US troops fully by September 11, 2021.
    The Taliban now view this as an important milestone and is busy trying to establish their military superiority on the ground. The targeting of Afghan government officials, women’s educational facilities, political opponents has escalated as the Taliban tries to lay down new ground rules. In one of the most significant gains for the Taliban since it ramped up its operations in May when the US began the final stages of its troop withdrawal, it captured Afghanistan’s main border crossing with Tajikistan in the far north near Kunduz city with some security forces reportedly abandoning their posts and fleeing across the frontier.
    These battlefield gains made by the Taliban is prompting some rethink on the part of the US military as well with suggestions that the US military could slow down its withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being reported that around 650 US troops are expected to remain in Afghanistan to provide security for diplomats after the withdrawal of majority of troops and several hundred additional US forces will remain at the Kabul airport to assist Turkish troops.
    The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made it clear that the Taliban’s violet onslaught is not in keeping with the framework for peace negotiations the US had agreed with the armed group and during Ghani’s visit to the US, Biden reiterated that America would continue to stand by Afghans even after their withdrawal. How exactly Washington intends to do this remains far from evident.
    With Americans making their intent clear, it is now up to the regional powers to take on the burden of managing the externalities of the change in Afghanistan. The recent visit by Indian officials to Qatar to speak with the Taliban should not come as a surprise as it is in the interest of both New Delhi and the Taliban to engage with each other and assess each other’s priorities. For India, Pakistan’s destructive role is the biggest challenge that will have to be navigated deftly.
    Pakistan continues to create its own realities as was once again in evidence recently when Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi alleged that India is using Afghanistan for “carrying out terrorist activities” in Pakistan and argued that New Delhi’s presence in Kabul is “larger than it ought to be” since these two countries do not share a border. Ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to drift with the Afghan intelligence agency, National Directorate of Security (NDS), recently arresting a Pakistan army officer sent to Paktia province in Afghanistan by Pakistan forces to fight alongside Taliban and conduct “destructive activities.” This was happening when Qureshi was arguing that Kabul is making Pakistan the “scapegoat” since the peace process and the intra-Afghan dialogue, is not going well.
    It is important for India to continue to emphasise its own red lines in its engagements with the Taliban as Jaishankar did at the UN recently. The Taliban’s role as an autonomous political actor outside the influence of the Pakistani military-intelligence complex will also depend on how far it is able to engage actors like India as it seeks a more central role for itself in Afghan governance structure. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban cannot ensure Afghanistan’s future. If the Taliban need some legitimacy and longevity in governing Afghanistan, New Delhi’s role will continue to be a critical one. This fundamental reality no one can ignore.
    — Professor Harsh V Pant is Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at King's College, London. The views expressed in the article are his own
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