India is still assessing the losses and gains of the historic visit of President Donald Trump to India. More than anything else, its symbolic value has been much appreciated around the world. The fact that the US President spent 36 hours India at a critical time was considered significant. It has boosted his electoral chances, removed the rumours that India was being isolated, resulted in some economic agreements, strengthened defence co-operation and laid the foundations for a Trade Agreement. The US-Taliban Agreement on Afghanistan was also discussed.
Whether the US-Taliban agreement brings peace and stability in Afghanistan or not, by supporting it, India has set aside its serious reservations about the Taliban and sided with the US decision to pull out of Afghanistan. This is a major change in policy as we know that Taliban is a proxy of Pakistan and that the US President would not care about Afghanistan once he pulls out his forces and ends the longest war fought by the US. The best hope is that the Taliban will keep its promise to end terrorism and bring about reconciliation among the various Afghan factions to build a new Afghanistan and also become a good neighbour of India.
Once Trump withdraws his forces from Afghanistan, it gives a free hand to the Taliban to return to power either on its own or with some of the myriad Afghan groups. But the big story of the latest developments is the dramatic shift in our position on Afghanistan, which was aimed at establishing an independent government through a reconciliation process among the Afghans. Instead, we have now opened our account with the Taliban without an intra-Afghan dialogue. We had also maintained that the US troops should stay in Afghanistan till a viable alternative was found. We have now acquiesced in the US-Taliban agreement apparently at the request of Trump. The presence of our ambassador in Qatar to witness the agreement and the visit of our foreign secretary in Kabul to persuade President Ashraf Ghani to open a dialogue with Taliban marked a major shift in the Indian position.
History repeats itself
No one had any doubt that the first low lying fruit to be harvested after the Trump-Modi summit will be the US-Taliban agreement, which was ready for signature even before “Namaste Trump” began. India had no say in the matter at any stage and the Indian position was that the US should remain in Afghanistan to maintain some semblance of stability. This was history repeating itself as India had similarly welcomed the Soviet troops in Afghanistan from 1979. In fact, it was on the question of Afghanistan that India-US relations had deteriorated in the early 80s. Though India was not a part of any of the peace negotiations on Afghanistan even under the aegis of the United Nations (UN), India was the elephant in the room. India-Pakistan tensions used to fuel the fire in Afghanistan as any victory of the Taliban was considered a victory for Pakistan.
A minor part of the agenda for Trump in India was to enlist India’s support to the US-Taliban agreement, which may have been signed even without a nod from India. India, knowing well that the agreement was a done deal, decided to go along with the Americans, despite the fact that the investments we have made in Afghanistan would be wasted or misused by the Taliban. India has not offered any explanation for its change in policy so far on the presumption that people know that India did not have any choice.
As for Trump, the agreement is simply a “withdrawal agreement” without attaining any of the objectives laid out at the time of the invasion after 9/11. Though the US forces managed to dislodge the Taliban government, the Taliban remained in control of a major portion of the country. The main objective was to eliminate terrorism as it turned out that Afghanistan and Pakistan were at the root of the evil of terrorism. The agreement talks of Taliban veering away from the terrorist groups, which had caused damage to the US, but that will not happen and even if there is a nominal separation, it will not make any difference to the situation on the ground or to the threat of terrorism.
The fate of Afghanistan was sealed when Trump introduced an element of cost-benefit analysis in security policies. When he insisted that the NATO partners should bear most of the expenses of the alliance, the nature of NATO itself had changed. In his own characteristic way, Trump even hinted at India, which was making millions of dollars in unfair trade with the US, should get more involved in Afghanistan to fight terrorism instead of building “libraries” in Afghanistan. India building a Parliament House, hospitals and schools in Afghanistan did not impress him. India stood firm on our policy in Afghanistan till now, but by approving the US-Taliban deal, India can only do things that the Taliban approves as the Ghani government will not last very long.
India was always on the margins of the Afghan negotiations even when the UN had begun discussions after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Our support to the Soviet Union and Pakistan’s objections were the real reasons for our exclusion, but the excuse was that the UN did not consider India a neighbouring country to Afghanistan. The idea is for Afghan parties to start the negotiations after the US-Taliban agreement, but India may not have a place on the table even if the Americans have promised a role for us.
The Taliban has announced that it will take part in the intra-Afghan talks in March only if the Taliban prisoners, numbering about 5,000, are released. Ghani is in no hurry because he is aware that the release of these prisoners will make the Taliban even more lethal. There are also reports that the Taliban has said that the ceasefire applies only to the foreigners and the military operations against Afghan forces will continue. A blast already hit a football ground in Eastern Afghanistan within hours of the signing of the agreement.
Pakistan has the clear intention of keeping India out of the peace process. The Pakistan foreign minister has already spoken about the “spoilers” who will attempt to derail the process. “We cannot be in denial about this. There were spoilers, there are spoilers,” said the minister. He told the Americans to keep a close eye on the spoilers. We cannot presume, even after the Taliban said that it would deal with all concerned states, that India will be involved in the uncertain future negotiations.
A parallel has been drawn between the US-Taliban agreement and the Paris Accords of 1973 when the US negotiated with North Vietnam over the heads of its ally, South Vietnam to pull out the US troops. At that time, President Richard Nixon did what Trump wants to do now to stop an endless war, rather than to leave a peaceful and united Afghanistan.
India has stepped into the Afghanistan minefield, overcoming the hesitations of history in the hope that we have won American approbation for not ostracising the Taliban in the hope that the new situation will provide new opportunities. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was realistic in his assessment: ”We have to see many of the assumptions that we had - how cohesive are various players, what do they do, what are their demands and finally do the Taliban join a democratic set up or a democratic set up adjust to the Taliban. I think these are issues for which right now there are no clear answers.” In other words, India’s support to the US-Taliban agreement was a leap into the dark.