In his closing speech at the Loya Jirga in February 2019, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said, “Let me thank India, a long time and historic friend of Afghanistan who has stood with us with patience and generosity. India has a deep policy towards Afghanistan. Respect to the determination of the Afghan people and respect to the constitutional order is the heart of that policy.” This goodwill towards India is not only held by the President and the Afghan political class, at large but also by the people of Afghanistan, in general, see India as an all-weather ally of their country and acknowledge the constructive role India has played in Afghanistan. With the ongoing peace talks and a potential American pullout looming over Afghanistan, it is time for India to capitalize on the goodwill it enjoys in Afghanistan, for its benefit and for the larger good of the Afghan nation.
However, India’s role in the peace negotiations between the US and the Taliban has been minimal. Barring a few consultative meetings between the US Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad and the Indian side, New Delhi has been practically on the sidelines of the peace talks. This minimalist Indian involvement has definitely upset a few and raised questions, too. India’s support for the government in Kabul, Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban and the peace talks, at large, along with India’s ‘no business with the Taliban’ policy has significantly contributed to India’s exclusion from the entire process.
But, in the case of a relatively laid back Afghan policy, New Delhi will be forced to put up with the consequences of its minimal role. On the face of it, it seems that New Delhi is quite anxious of the increasing role of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Americans, in the way of the peace deal with the Taliban, seem to be in a hurry to withdraw from Afghanistan. However, in the long term, pro-democratic forces and Afghan women, in particular, will bear the consequences of the hurried withdrawal which eventually will undercut India’s influence in Afghanistan’s future because, in a race to win over the Taliban, Pakistan will most likely outcompete India which has long supported the group and shares ideological affinities.
India’s soft power push in Afghanistan, in the post-Taliban era, has ensured New Delhi a great deal of goodwill in the nation. The goodwill for India in Afghanistan could be materialized to enhance India’s political influence in the political structure which could potentially emerge from the peace talks along with the Taliban’s integration. In the light of Afghan goodwill for India, India needs to revisit its approach from solely providing support to the government of Afghanistan to potentially lobbying for the Afghan government with the Taliban and also securing conditions for a democratic political system in Afghanistan. For that, it could garner support from those communities who would lose the most if the Taliban regain its dominance in Afghanistan. India can potentially even strike an alliance with Afghan women who are more empowered compared to the Taliban era. Instead of talking to the Taliban, India can and should bargain with the United States to not accept a compromise of the Afghan constitution, the nation’s democratic rights, women’s rights, human rights and the rights of ethnic groups who would be more than happy if the Taliban are kept at bay, in the name of a deal with the Taliban. In this way, India would be better off in being more influential in Afghanistan without directly confronting Pakistan or appeasing to the Taliban’s undemocratic demands.
Avoiding engagement or a possible confrontation with Pakistan, which seems to have an upper hand at the moment, on Afghan soil cannot be a reason for India to remain a spectator in Afghanistan at a time when there is a lot at stake in the country. Attacks have stepped up in the country while the US and the Taliban seem to be reaching towards the end of their negotiations. Meanwhile, campaigns for the Afghan presidential elections, which are scheduled for September 2019, as of now, have also started. Technically, this leaves India with two options: engage with the Taliban to secure Indian interests in Afghanistan and the region and subsequently also lobby for the Afghan government with the Taliban or hold ground, provide institutional support for the Afghan government and the administration in conducting the forthcoming elections.
War has exhausted Afghanistan for years and the country has actively tried putting the war behind and rebuild the nation, all over again. One cannot clearly foresee the consequences of the US-Taliban negotiations, at the moment. The absence of a proactive policy, on New Delhi’s part, will cost India and Afghanistan, a potential downfall in bilateral relations and of course the democratic environment that has emerged in Afghanistan post-2001.
Madhuvanthi Srinivasan is an Indian journalist based in New Delhi. Her interests include foreign policy with a focus on Afghanistan, Turkey and India. She has graduated with a degree in Economics and Journalism.