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Time to engage even Taliban in Afghanistan. India must keep its diplomacy nimble

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 1 March 2018, 18:08 IST
(Arya Sharma / Catch News)

President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah’s National Unity Government (NUG) of Afghanistan has rolled out the red carpet for the Taliban in an unprecedented manner. It has done so despite the lack of any indication from the Taliban that it wants to engage the NUG in a peace process.

If anything, it has kept to its traditional stance of wishing to only talk directly to the United States. More importantly, it has not given any signal of turning its back on terrorist violence. Indeed, only last month it claimed responsibility for a deadly ambulance vehicle bomb attack in Kabul which led to almost a hundred deaths.

What has the NUG actually announced?

Inaugurating the second Kabul Conference on 28 February, Ghani invited the Taliban to engage in a peace process with the NUG. He spelt out no conditions. This was a departure from the past when the Taliban’s repudiation of violence and an acceptance of the Afghan constitution were set as necessary pre-conditions for a peace process.

Equally significantly, Ghani said the Taliban would be accepted as a political party and could establish its office in Afghanistan or a third country. He further said Taliban leaders would be given passports and would be taken off lists that have prevented their free movement till now. As a political party the Taliban could also contest elections.

The modalities for the establishment of the Taliban as a political party would need to be worked out and may be problematic. For instance, would the NUG accept a Taliban political party with the symbols of the Islamic Emirate? Former President Hamid Karzai had reacted with fury when the Taliban office in Doha had unfurled the Islamic Emirate flag at its office. He had rejected talks with the Taliban on that basis. Would the NUG show flexibility?

Ghani pointed out that the peace process could lead to amendments to the Afghan constitution. This is showing extreme flexibility even though Ghani has hinted that the preservation of women rights is non-negotiable. There is no evidence to indicate that the Taliban leadership has evolved. Hence, what would happen if it insists that Afghan laws must reflect the harshest forms of the Hanafi mazhab?

Why has the NUG shown such desperation to entice the Taliban to the negotiating table? Is it the security situation in Afghanistan which has deteriorated over the past year?

There is no doubt that the Taliban, despite no longer being a monolith, has shown the capacity to undertake terrorist attacks almost at will. The Afghan security forces have been able to take on the Taliban but do not have the ability to defeat them. 

That objective requires that the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan be permanently closed. Pakistan will not do so willingly. Has the NUG reached the conclusion that despite all the hype the Trump administration will not take action to do so. 

It would seem that Ghani and Abdullah have thought that, even though they are now appealing to the Taliban from an obvious position of weakness, a delay would only make their position weaker and so it was better to extend an invitation now.

The Kabul Conference was attended by 35 countries and international organisations. All regional countries and the P-5 as well as important Islamic states were represented at the conference A Declaration issued at it conclusion endorsed the path of intra-Afghan negotiations as the path to peace and stability in Afghanistan. 

It did not go into specifics of the peace plan but it is clear that no country was willing to state that it is not prudent to negotiate with a terrorist group from a position of weakness. The Declaration did assert the resolve of the international community to combat terrorism but this is routine by now. 

A demand that countries should not aid terrorists is also hollow and routine. No effective action has been taken against such states.

The key to peace and stability in Afghanistan lies with the generals in Pakistan. Under pressure from Trump they have been making the right noises. However, the inconsistency demonstrated by different sections of the Trump administration has fed the thought that eventually Trump will go the way of his predecessors and not drive Pakistan over the precipice.

The Taliban peace offer may reinforce those elements in Pakistan who do wish to change the country’s Afghan policy. This is notwithstanding the oblique reference made in a NUG document giving details of the peace offer. It noted: “A concerted global effort to persuade Pakistan of the advantages of a stable Afghanistan and to enter in a comprehensive state to state dialogue with Afghanistan and to support the peace offer to the Taliban.”

It is doubtful if the NUG peace offer was not known to the US. Obviously, it has not stood in its way even though Trump has personally and emphatically spoken on a number of occasions of the futility of talks with the Taliban. 

Perhaps the US hopes that under pressure Pakistan will persuade the Taliban to enter into peace talks. The carrot-and-stick approach towards Pakistan and the Taliban had not worked in the past. Will it do so now? The chances are remote.

Where does this leave India? It attended the Kabul Conference and went along with the Declaration. While continuing with its support to the NUG India must not overlook Ghani’s inherent desire to make up with Pakistan. 

In the past he was willing to do so at some cost to Afghanistan’s India relationship. The time has come to engage all elements in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Engagement is not endorsement leave alone approval.

The need for nimble Indian diplomacy in the Afghan context is now great.

Edited by Joyjeet Das

First published: 1 March 2018, 18:08 IST