Just like the fog of war, the fog of peace in Afghanistan is so dense that it is hard to discern how serious the opposing sides are in resolving the conflict, which has put neighbouring states like India in a fix.

After more than four decades of war, the signs of Afghanistan's exit from an exhausting political deadlock became visible as the Taliban and Afghan government huddled together under a common roof, also known as the intra-Afghan talks, on September 12, 2020. 

Months have rolled by since then and nothing in any way substantial has come out of the talks thus far. The soaring hopes and publicity around the negotiations are fading away in light of the terror attacks that have since engulfed the nation, while the operational delays in holding the next round of dialogues are only making the domestic and international audience question the sincerity of the parties involved in the process. 

The glacial slow speed has accentuated the apprehensions and fears that the historic US-led Afghan peace initiative is heading towards a total breakdown. To rescue the talks, the international community recently extended its support to the peace process in Geneva on a range of conditions which include a comprehensive ceasefire and thorough enforcement of the rule of law in the country.

With the two parties unable to find a common ground and unwilling to concede extra space to each other,  the spiralling violence has even spread to the country's relatively peaceful provinces such as Bamyan. At the same time, the Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, appears to be interested in biding time as the US makes a transition from a Trump to a post-Trump foreign policy paradigm. However, it is unlikely that the new administration under President-elect Joe Biden will radically depart from the existing American plans for a drawdown. At best, the pace and contours of the withdrawal may look less tentative. That being said, one cannot rule out the possibility of an impulsive pull-out of American forces by the outgoing US President Donald Trump before he leaves office in January 2021. He has, after all, sanctioned the closure of as many as 10 American bases across Afghanistan in the last year and seeks to recall 2500 American troops by January 15.

If the world, including Afghanistan, is on the edge because of the outgoing American President, the Taliban is apprehensive about the incoming Biden-led administration for two reasons. On the one hand, there is the Afghan government which has been trying to convince President-elect Biden to repudiate the Doha Agreement of February 2020 as the basis of the ongoing talks. On the other, there are increasing murmurs against a “hasty” withdrawal, including a strongly-worded memo by former US Defence Secretary, Mark Esper, conveying “unanimous recommendations of the chain of command that the US not drawdown its troop presence in Afghanistan any further until further conditions were met”. These reasons are only expected to make the Taliban feel anxious about the fate of the peace process in which it has so far called the shots. 

Biden’s interest appears to to be about maintaining only a small, counter-terrorism presence in Afghanistan, and therefore nothing much is expected to change. That said, the Taliban is willing to leave little to chance. In a statement put out on its website, the group made clear that the “withdrawal of all US forces from Afghanistan…was in the best interest of both our peoples and nations”. They have even gone on to claim that the procedural issues regarding the peace talks were sorted out with the government’s negotiators on November 15 itself but that the President of Afghanistan has allegedly been dragging his feet on the matter. 

Just like the fog of war, the fog of peace in Afghanistan is so dense that it is hard to discern ingenuity from the opposite intentions. It is unclear where these negotiations will head if they survive in the long-run at all. The persisting political troubles related to the peace process in Afghanistan, along with differing international opinions on the American withdrawal, mean that the war is most likely to continue in its current form for the foreseeable future. In fact, the situation is only getting worse with rising violence in the country, particularly as Daesh or the so-called Islamic State of Khorasan is making deeper inroads into Afghanistan. 

Where does the evolving situation leave a neighbouring country like India, which has invested billions of dollars in Afghanistan's infrastructure and security projects?

India was also one of the countries present at the Geneva conference in Afghanistan earlier this month. Like other donors, it too renewed its commitment for its re-development. As one of the largest donors, India’s ‘developmental aid’ was once again extended to take up a combination of infrastructural and human resource development projects across Afghanistan. Praised for its active support by President Ghani, India has, however, shown a considerable degree of passivity towards the ongoing peace negotiations. For that matter, it has been hesitant to lend its support to the talks to some extent. The reason behind the reluctance, a result of its genuine apprehensions vis-a-vis the intentions of the Taliban, is nevertheless putting limits to the role that it can play as a major regional player. Recently, however, India has begun to come round and even became party to the talks when they began in Doha on September 12.

In separate visits by the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, and Field Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, India reiterated its commitment to supporting peace processes that are ‘Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and Afghan-controlled’ in an active manner. While the ongoing talks are certainly not the clearest case of the aforementioned epithet, it may hold the promise for reconciliation that has long eluded Afghanistan. Talking to the Taliban, however, still remains off the table and given the current circumstances, India may continue to hold the cards close to its chest on this matter. 

However, as I have stated elsewhere, the seeming inevitability of the Taliban’s presence in Afghanistan’s evolving political landscape, necessitates that India revisits its historical moral opposition to the group in light of a collective strategic benefit. That India can play a critical role in overseeing the end of a long, deadly conflict in a meaningful manner is undeniable. Hence, it will only be reasonable and strategically sensible on India’s part to be mindful of the emerging political reality in Afghanistan while remaining steadfast in its support for the latter’s constitutional forces. 

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Source: TRT World