The Financial Express

The state of play in intra-Afghan peace talks

Delegates attending talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents in Doha, Qatar on September 12 –Reuters Photo Delegates attending talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents in Doha, Qatar on September 12 –Reuters Photo

The US backed Afghan government and the Taliban held peace talks on Saturday, September 12  in Qatar's capital Doha, This was the first ever face to face meeting between them after nearly 20 years of conflict resulting from the invasion and military occupation of Afghanistan by the US. In fact, the conflict has been going on in Afghanistan almost for the last  40 years since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979 which ended in February, 1989. But the conflict continued among warring Afghan groups leading to the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001.The peace talks are a part of a "peace deal'' the US signed with the Taliban in February this year in the Qatari capital Doha to end the military stalemate in Afghanistan.

The February agreement with the Taliban was reached to give shape to the promise US President Donald Trump gave to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan during his 2016 election campaign. While according to the US-Taliban agreement, the peace talks were expected to start in March but delayed by six months due to disagreement between the US backed government in Kabul and the Taliban.  But the US has ramped up pressure on its own backed regime in Afghanistan to start negotiations with the Taliban to work out the future political landscape of Afghanistan enabling the US to start withdrawing its troops from the country. That is the stated line of reasoning that  was presented by the US, therefore the  issue has now become more urgent as President Trump is facing re-election very soon.

There are also continuing problems on both sides to start the peace talks. The US backed Kabul government remains fractured over the disputed presidential election held last September, however a power sharing arrangement was  worked out with Abdullah Abdullah who was bestowed with the title  as Chief Executive.  In that capacity he  heads  the High Council for National Reconciliation which is now empowered to undertake the peace talks.

Also, many within the ranks of Taliban fighters are opposed to entering peace talks and they believe that they could win militarily as nearly half the country is effectively under their control. The US agency, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction also has expressed fear that Taliban fighters returning to their homes could be targeted by corrupt officials or threatened by authorities. This was what happened in the wake of the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001.

In fact,  the US backed government in Kabul is deeply mired in corruption, and as a result has become almost dysfunctional and would collapse if the US does not provide military support to keep it in power.  There is hardly any rule of law and the country is  largely run by the militias loyal to the Kabul government's allied warlords. The same US agency, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction in its report of 2019 described the country as a "failed state".

Issues that separate the two sides are many and mistrust is deep. Looming over all specific issues is the future governance model for Afghanistan. There are also spoilers not only within the country but also outside including within the US itself.  Recognising the reality, at the opening ceremony, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the direct formal peace talks  as "a truly momentous occasion". He further cautioned that the way forward would "require hard work and sacrifice''. In response Taliban Chief Negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in his brief  remark called for an Afghanistan "where everyone lives in peace and harmony and no one feels any discrimination".

The Taliban now speaks from a position of strength as it now controls half of the territory of the country. Therefore, the Taliban now also believe that they enter into peace talks with a strong position and they are also a united force unlike the fractured Kabul regime. So, the Taliban's seriousness about the peace process does not imply eagerness to compromise.

More importantly, the Taliban is also of the view that they effectively and strategically defeated the US army, and they will  leave soon leaving the Taliban the strongest party to govern the country. No wonder the Taliban agenda has remained steady since its first meeting with US officials 10 years ago to achieve peace in Afghanistan - withdrawal of US forces and a substantial role in the Afghan government.

For the Taliban to achieve the first objective to ensure the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan is a decisive win as the  US troops never really leave a country occupied through wars as happened in Germany, Japan and Iraq for example. Contemporary history informs us unless  the US is not decisively defeated in a military engagement as happened in Vietnam, US troops will never leave the occupied country. This is simply because the military industrial complex in the US enormously profits from all wars including proxy wars that the US engineers and conducts around the world. Any US troop withdrawals from anywhere in the world will result in military spending cuts and the gravy train will stop for both the military industrial complex and other related interest groups. Therefore, they need Taliban type or Islamic terrorists type perpetual enemy to remain engaged with.  If the first objective is achieved by the Taliban, the second will automatically follow giving them  predominance in any future government in Afghanistan.

For years Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China have  their concerns whether  the US genuinely sought peace  and instead intended to establish a permanent foothold in Afghanistan to contain them. Obviously, those fears led to various forms of hedging behaviour including developing closer ties with the Taliban. However, the role of India remains a crucial factor in the  continuing Afghan conflict. The forty years of conflict in Afghanistan started with the Soviet installed government in Afghanistan at the very end of 1979 which India, the only South Asian country recognised. By doing so India not only directly contributed in legitimising a foreign installed government in Afghanistan but also created an environment for the US to sponsor, train, finance, arm and to provide logistical support to extreme Islamic radical forces to fight against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The US deliberately turned a secular nationalist movement  against the Soviet occupation into a faith based religious war and the consequences of that are still lingering on.

India then switched its role to help the US to invade and occupy Afghanistan  in 2001 and has since then  become an active strategic partner of the country's US backed government. More disturbingly India has allegedly adopted a policy preference for no-deal with the Taliban causing the conflict to continue and deepen. To further complicate the situation India has been involved in fomenting inter-ethnic rivalry to further destabilise the country.

However, to what extent India is economically capable of undertaking those tasks is the issue. There is no doubt India harbours those ambition but its economic reach remains very limited  as reflected in the prevalence of extreme poverty and squalor in the country.

India attended the Intra-Afghan Peace Talks at the invitation of the Qatari government and sent a high level delegation to the Peace Talks. Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar also addressed  the conference virtually. In view of India's "no deal with Taliban'' policy, such a U-turn is quite remarkable given that now on Pakistan has placed itself in an advantageous position. In effect, India has lost the proxy war and its ability to work as a spoiler has also become limited with its current military engagements with China and in Kashmir.

Despite such a diplomatic setback, Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar put up a brave face and in the true tradition of Indian diplomacy started with a very lofty statement, "The friendship of our people is a testimony to our history with Afghanistan".  But that testimony to the history remains a very problematic one, in particular for the present Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu  supremacist political party now in power in New Delhi. Mr Jaishankar was quite hypocritical when he went  on to pontificate  what type of Afghanistan India wants to see once peace is restored in Afghanistan. These include respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan; promoting human rights and democracy; ensuring interest of minorities, women and the vulnerable; and to effectively address violence across the country

India's record of respecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbouring countries remains rather very dismal.  It appears India's territorial boundaries are still a work in progress like Israel, a country India now has close military links and  considers as a model to give demographic solution to the only Muslim majority part in India, Kashmir.   India has always taken very muscular stance on border issues with its neighbours including China. Killing of Bangladeshi citizens by Indian troops along  border areas is a regular occurrence.

India's record of respecting human rights in its own country remains dismally poor as reflected extreme police violence against peaceful demonstrators in various parts India including its capital city Delhi under the current BJP government. Political dissidents disappear quite frequently. Noam Chomsky in an interview with Karthik Ramanathan said, "In India what we are seeing now is the symptoms of fascism". Prime Minister Modi's party BJP is the political wing of the RSS, the Hindu supremacist organisation established in the early 1920s inspired by the Nazi ideology.  The three founding leaders of the RSS, K.B. Hedgeware, M.S. Golwakar and V.D. Savarkar had close links with German Nazis and Italian Fascists. Modi himself has started his political career as a Pracharak (preacher) in the RSS before transiting to its political wing the BJP.

Politically motivated hate campaign against religious minorities, especially Muslims in India has a  very long history and the list is too long to mention here. Most often hate crimes against Muslims are committed with the help of the police and any recourse to justice is always very remote as all police investigations always  blame the victims (i.e. Muslims) not the perpetrators.

Peaceful protest against anti-Muslim riots  faced police and Hindu supremacists violence in Delhi in February this year. The riots resulted in 57 deaths of which 47 were Muslims. Violence against women by the police is quite common as was seen during the same anti-Muslim riots in Delhi. The police especially targeted female students at Jamia Millia University for perpetrating sexual violence where the police used their "lathis" to hit private parts of female students seriously injuring them requiring medical attention. All these happened right on the campus. 

About 200 million Muslims in India are now in danger of losing their civil rights and residency through the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizenship. 13 million Kashmiris are now stripped of their constitutionally guaranteed position and live under curfew enforced by a heavily reinforced military and other security force. For the last 70 years or so India completely refused to respect the Kashmiris right to self determination as enshrined in UN Security Council resolutions. Since 1990 an estimated  10,000 Kashmiris disappeared. 

A complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan  is more likely dependent on  commitments made by the Taliban to ensure that Afghanistan would  not be allowed to be used for attacking the US and its allies than on the success of Intra-Afghan peace talks. The US does not list who these US allies are and India's concern is whether it makes the cut. To further add to India's anxiety, the US-Taliban agreement also does not include a list of groups who might be anti-Indian.

As for India,  its best option now is  to follow through the advice given by US Chief Negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad to start conversation with the Taliban. For the long-term peace and stability in the South Asian region, it is time for India to show some realism rather than be a usual spoiler and a bully by extending its conversation also with Pakistan while conversing with the Taliban.


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