For a peaceful South Asia, US acknowledges India's strategic importance to Afghanistan

The growing political and economic influence of India in Afghanistan has been factored by the Biden administration and the inclusion of India in the peace talks are proof of that, writes Shushant VC for South Asia Monitor

Shushant V C Mar 12, 2021
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With the global community waiting with bated breath in regards to the pullout of American troops from Afghanistan, a letter by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has clearly stated the importance of India in the Afghan peace talks. Blinken’s letter, which was published by Afghan media house TOLO News, has provided various inputs to the Afghan government in order to carry out the peace process in a smooth and well-structured manner.

Blinken in his letter has outlined four ways to “move matters more fundamentally and quickly” toward peace. He spelled out that the government needs to first establish an interim government with the Taliban on board; second, to work out a new constitution and state structure to hold elections, three, two parallel processes: one in which to involve regional players under the UN and the other for Turkey to mediate the difficult but vital 90-day period of reduced violence to dovetail the ingredients of the peace agreement; the fourth, that the US would consider the full withdrawal of its forces by May 1.

The US-Taliban Peace Agreement had brought hope of ushering in peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban was to end its acts of violence and therefore integrate itself in mainstream Afghan politics. However, a point to be noted here is that the Taliban has been actively engaged in gaining influence in both politics and military which in turn means that, firstly, the control of the Taliban over large parts of the Afghan landscape has not gone down and, secondly, the Afghan National Army (ANA) which has been trained by the US Armed Forces has not been able to do its job the way it was expected to.

Therefore, the agreement signed by the US government and the Taliban in 2020 can be seen as a compromise of sorts which is based upon the fact that the Taliban will not be a thing of the past and that it will continue to play a pivotal role in Afghan politics in the years to come.

US troop withdrawal

Former US President Donald Trump in his speeches had continuously stressed the withdrawal of American troops from the longest war in which America has taken part. American soldiers have been involved in the war against terrorism since 2001 when the 9/11 terror attack took place. The need to withdraw American soldiers arose following heavy causalities suffered by the Americans and the pumping of the American taxpayer’s money into keeping the war alive. Though the peace agreement was signed by the Taliban and the US government, the Afghan society, including many innocent people and soldiers, continued to be killed and injured in various acts of violence. It became clear that Afghanistan will further go into chaos once the US army finally withdraws its troops from the war-torn nation.

The withdrawal of the American troops will be good for the Taliban, from a political and military perspective, but not for Afghan society in general, who seems to be under duress. This has only increased pressure on Ghani’s government. The US is well aware of this situation and knows that the Afghan army will be badly defeated by the Taliban once the American troops withdraw.

In his letter to the Afghan president, Blinken has talked about the peace agreement and has also pointed out that the signing of the agreement between them has not been successful as the Taliban is still carrying out various acts of violence and terror.

Broadening scope of peace agreement 

Blinken has further said that the peace talks taking place in Doha have been unsuccessful as the Taliban, due to one reason or another has not been forthcoming. Blinken had also stated that there is the need to broaden the scope of the agreement, and the need to involve other Afghan political figures such as former Afghan president Hamid Karzai. By doing so, every section of Afghan society will be represented in the peace talks that are to take place in the coming future.

The letter also states that while the peace talks are taking place between various Afghan political figures and the representative of Taliban, there is the need for a second round of talks to take place. This second round of talks will include foreign ministers and envoys from the US, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and India.

This is a significant development in itself in comparison to what was going on earlier. Since the Bonn Conference took place, India has not been a part of these ongoing peace talks for the last 20 years. India has been watching the peace talks by being on the sidelines. In spite of providing economic assistance to Afghanistan, the political capabilities of India have not been acknowledged till now. This is so because of the fact that Pakistan does not want to lose its leverage as it was the one that brought the Taliban to the discussion table. Because of this, the US government has always been sensitive to the needs of the Pakistani government in relation to its policies in South Asia and especially Afghanistan. The need to include India in the peace talks can be seen as the US government's acknowledgment of the strategic importance of India when it comes to South Asia. Therefore, when the peace talks resume India will be there and will make sure to put forth its viewpoints across the table.

Opportunity for India

This new US roadmap for peace in Afghanistan provides an opportunity for India to increase its foothold in the South Asian region. The interactions between Zalmay Khalilzad, US Special Envoy to Afghanistan, and S Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister , only confirms that the current US government, when it comes to Afghanistan's long-term peace, acknowledges the importance of India in the New Great Game that is going on currently.

This is important on many levels: Firstly, it is to be noted that in 2018 key Taliban members were invited to Moscow as the Russians wanted to play an important role in the overall peace process. While doing so the Russian government had invited key Indian government officials as well, but they were there only as silent observers. However, in 2020 there is a complete role reversal as the Indian external affairs minister virtually participated in the inaugural session of the intra-Afghan negotiations held in Doha. 

Secondly, India has been actively working in the background by engaging with the various sections of Afghan society by providing assistance in order to build infrastructure, providing scholarships to Afghan students since 2001, construction of the Afghan parliament, and providing political and intelligence assistance to Afghanistan. Thirdly, India has been engaging with various Afghan leaders at various levels. Fourthly, the Indian government has been actively engaged with the regional players.

The growing political and economic influence of India in Afghanistan has been factored by the Biden administration and the inclusion of India in the peace talks are proof of that. Even though Pakistan is not pleased with the inclusion of India in the Afghan peace talks, one needs to look at the big picture too.

The big picture is that the US wants a peaceful South Asia and in order to do so it wants to militarily disengage India and Pakistan. In order to gain an advantage over its rivals, the US government is actively engaged in bringing peace in South Asia, especially between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Pakistan and India. Making India part of the Afghan peace talks seems to be the first step in that direction.

(The writer is a Ph.D. in Political Science from Amity University, India. The views are personal. He can be contacted at simmaksushant@gmail.com)

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