The latest news from Qatar, where the United States Envoy, Zalmay Khalizad, is engaged in direct negotiations with the Taliban is that the two sides are close to an agreement on the setting up of a new Government in Afghanistan with Taliban as a major partner, leading to the withdrawal of the US forces. This presents enormous challenges to India, putting at risk the investments and the good relations India has with the present Government in Afghanistan. India faces the dilemma of having to choose between accepting the legitimacy of a Taliban Government or keeping itself out of the new dispensation, bearing in mind the possibility of the Taliban being hostile to India after assuming power.
A note posted on the website of the Ministry of External Affairs on Afghanistan relations reads as though Afghanistan is a peaceful and placid nation, with no internal contradictions. India’s Strategic Partnership Agreement of 2011 forms the basis of a strong, mutually beneficial relationship, based on historical and cultural links. The note contains a catalogue of visits and the various measures India has taken to extend development and humanitarian assistance. India today is the biggest regional donor and its assistance includes building of not only the National Assembly Hall, but also a national park worth a million rupees for the Afghan National Flag Project. A hint in the report of volatility in Afghanistan is a reference to political, security and economic transitions there. In addition, the following paragraph refers to the international effort to bring about stability in Afghanistan, in which India is involved.
“India also realises that stability can result in Afghanistan only if all the major actors and countries have a stake in its stability, growth and prosperity. India has, thus, been championing efforts to attract regional and trans-regional investment into Afghanistan that provides a viable alternative to the dominant narrative of extremism and offers job opportunities to its population, by pioneering events like the Delhi Investment Summit on Afghanistan in June 2012. Recognising that the region holds the key to peace in Afghanistan, India is spearheading commercial Confidence Building Measures in the region within the purview of the Heart of Asia Process. Multilaterally, it helped initiate a dialogue on Afghanistan through various platforms like the Afghanistan-India-US trilateral and the Afghanistan-India-Iran trilateral that seek to bring together international partners with disparate world views in pursuit of the common goal of securing peace and prosperity in Afghanistan. India also expressed its support to international cooperation on Afghanistan at the UN and at various international conferences focused on the future of Afghanistan, including the seminal Tokyo Developmental Conference in July 2012 and London Conference in December 2014.”
In actual fact, India’s overall relationship with Afghanistan has been strewn with dilemmas for India over the years. The political polarisation of various groups in Afghanistan has placed India in embarrassing situations, because Pakistan has manipulated these groups to keep India out of an Afghan settlement. In the early years, when the UN made some tentative moves to bring about stability in Afghanistan, some UN officials excluded India from the Group on Afghanistan on the ground that India did not have a common border with Afghanistan. India had to lead a campaign to be included as Pakistan strongly objected.
At the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, India faced its biggest dilemma. Charan Singh was still the Prime Minister and Indira Gandhi was widely expected to win in the January 1980 election with majority in Lok Sabha. Yuli Vorontsov, the Soviet Ambassador, got a mouthful from Charan Singh when he went to inform the Indian Prime Minister that the Soviet forces had entered Afghanistan at the invitation of the Afghan President, who was assassinated by the Soviet forces. Foreign Secretary Ram Sathe was more guarded, but he made it clear that the Soviet forces should withdraw from Afghanistan forthwith. But Vorontsov was warmly received by Indira Gandhi and India virtually supported the Soviet position that the intervention was justified. The position that India took at the UN in defiance of most members of the Nonaligned Movement came as a surprise and this led to a deterioration in our relations with the west. But the forces unleashed in Afghanistan on the withdrawal of the Soviet Union proved the Indian position wise. The emergence of the Taliban Government changed the situation dramatically not only for india, but also for the entire world as Afghanistan became the hub of international terrorism. With 9/11, the war against terror led by the US ended the Taliban Government and the US troops in Afghanistan became the anchor of the different Governments which came to power there.
India took the opportunity to build its relations with the Afghan Government and despite terrorist attacks against the Indian Embassy and Indians, India waded into the killing fields of Afghanistan, with development and humanitarian assistance. Peace was tenuous and the different factions continued their strife, but India remained consistent in supporting the Government formed by an agreement between President Ghani and India’s close associate, Abdullah Abdullah.
The next dilemma for India came when President Donald Trump announced dramatically that he was withdrawing half the American forces in Afghanistan and the US had entered into direct negotiations with the Taliban. Russia also started its own peace initiatives in which India participated at the unofficial level. The change of position of the US is quite likely to lead to the formation of a Government in Afghanistan and if India kept away from the peace process, it could be isolated. On the other hand, it is tough for India to enter into direct negotiations with Taliban, which is still a terrorist organisation. But the US and others, including circles within India are urging India to open a dialogue with the Taliban. The risk of India losing all the investments in Afghanistan and the pressure of terrorism are real if Taliban comes to power and the US withdraws by declaring victory. President Trump has mocked India’s work in Afghanistan as building libraries, amounting only to a week’s US investments in Afghanistan. The end of war on terror by the US will also encourage Pakistan to increase terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. It remains to be seen how India handles the new situation as legitimising a terrorist organisation is anathema to India. There have been reports that Taliban has also made moves to engage India, while negotiating a settlement with the United States. The time has come for India to decide whether to move with the times or remain adamant about not engaging Taliban directly. Support for the settlement in Afghanistan without direct negotiations with Taliban may be the option that India eventually adopts. The old adage that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies is in the air again.