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U.S.-Taliban Deal: India should Chalk-out a New Strategy

Afghanistan map | OPED COLUMN Magazine

For India, it would be wise for the time-being to observe how things unfold after the USA-Taliban peace agreement, and then chalk-out a new strategy at an appropriate time. It would be premature, and perhaps wrong, to reach the conclusion that the agreement has left India with no hope in the Afghan equation.

[Manish Rai | Oped Column Magazine]

In a landmark development, the United States has agreed to reduce its force – from 13,000 soldiers to 8,600 – in Afghanistan in the coming three to four months, with the remaining forces withdrawing over the next 14 months.

This commitment comes under a deal struck in Doha between the USA and the Taliban “for bringing peace”. Under the same deal, the Taliban has agreed not to allow the use of Afghan soil as a base to plot attacks on the USA or its allies.

Many in New Delhi fear that the Taliban’s return to power may jeopardize India’s $3 billion worth of investments and strategic interests. What’s worse, it would be a nightmare for Indian geopolitical interests in the region if Pakistan’s influence increases drastically with the Taliban’s return to power.

Yet, India should pursue a ‘wait and watch’ approach at this point in time. After all, a lot has changed in Afghanistan’s political landscape since 2001.

During the Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban was a rag tag militia with no strategic thinking and, hence, was playing in the hand of Pakistan. However, today’s Taliban are shrewd politicians. It would be difficult for Pakistan to use them at will.

India was never opposed to Afghan national government reconciling with the Taliban, as the Taliban has never been the central problem. Pakistan’s overwhelming influence on the Taliban and the latter’s inability to liberate itself from such influence have always been the principal issue.

Taliban is not a regional player. Unlike Al-Qaida or ISIS, they don’t have the aspiration for global jihad. Instead, their insurgency in the past 18 years has been focused on only Afghanistan. This doesn’t, however, mean that the Talibans will make good friends for India.

During his assignment in Afghanistan in 2014, the author of this op-ed column, Manish Rai, interviewed Wakeel Ahmad Muttawakil, who was the foreign minister during the Taliban rule and a close confident of Mulla Omar.

Muttawakil told the author that Taliban has changed and that they now have more mature political thinking. He also said that it was a mistake on India’s part that it didn’t recognize Taliban regime in 1996 and also didn’t open any channel of communication with them.

However, New Delhi now understands that Taliban cannot be ignored in Afghan equation and that they will be a significant player under any circumstances.

Taliban too realizes that India has been playing a major and constructive developmental role in Afghanistan. After all, India is Afghanistan’s one of the largest bilateral donors. Since the fall of the Taliban, India has strengthened Afghan trade ties and provided over US$3 billion in reconstruction assistance.

While Pakistan, as its principal sponsor, has considerable influence over the Taliban, India has economic clout to assist Afghanistan. Hence, India has what Pakistan doesn’t.

Economic aid never fails to produce influence. New Delhi’s aid must not only continue but also increase with firm commitment over the next decade. New Delhi should consider an amount like US$1 billion a year to Afghanistan as a small price to pay for establishing its influence on Afghanistan.

Taliban leaders know very well that Pakistan itself is in deep economic crisis and cannot afford to provide any significant economic assistance. Also, Pakistan wants Afghanistan to be its vassal state and Taliban as its mere proxy.

On the contrary, at some point when they get politically settled, the Talibans will definitely be looking for sovereignty and economic independence from Pakistan. In that very point of time, India could be a very viable option for them. Indian policy makers should, therefore, shape a strategy with the intention to make the Afghan Taliban relatively independent of Pakistan.

As of now, India has no reason to panic about Afghanistan. But India certainly has to be very cautious and must plan its moves well in advance. What’s more, India will have a number of other options too beyond the option of establishing communication with Taliban.

For instance, if Taliban do not respond positively to Indian overtures, India can alternatively increase its support to non-Pashtun groups, which are fiercely opposed to Taliban. India has its old friends – the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks – in the north of Afghanistan. India has always supported these ethnic groups.

It should be noted that the aforesaid USA-Taliban agreement – that has been reached in Doha – is less like a peace-deal and more like a exit-strategy for the USA. Hence, the agreement doesn’t mean that Taliban will now be able to take over the whole country. However, the agreement has opened a possibility to this end. But first, Taliban has to engage intra-Afghan peace process with other Afghan ethnic groups in order to reach a power-sharing styled peace-deal.

Hence, the USA-Taliban peace agreement does not mean that hopes are lost for India in the Afghan equation. So, India must not pack bags and leave for home. Reaching such a conclusion would be premature, and perhaps wrong.

Instead, it would be wise to observe how things unfold after the agreement and then chalk-out a new strategy at an appropriate time.

Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geopolitical news agency Viewsaround.

Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geopolitical news agency Viewsaround.

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