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Above: Taliban militants stand next to the wreckage of a damaged aircraft, in Sayed Karam district, Afghanistan/Photo: UNI

In a positive first step, a mellowed Taliban has started speaking to political leaders in Afghanistan. India, watching from the sidelines, hopes its interests will be secure

By Seema Guha

Peace moves are on in Afghanistan. For the first time in 17 years, the Taliban appears to be serious about bringing the civil war to an end. In January, the Taliban wrapped up six days of talks with Zalmay Khalilzad, US President Donald Trump’s peace envoy for Afghanistan. The talks in Qatar satisfied both sides. According to reports, a broad framework agreement was reached between the US and the Taliban, though details would have to be fleshed out.

There is no word on what the Taliban may demand when it comes to a final political settlement. This is what is of growing concern to India, which has been watching developments from the sidelines. While Pakistan is key to a solution, India is only a minor player. However, Afghanistan remains of strategic interest to Delhi.

The January talks with the US were followed up last week with another go at peace, this time in Moscow. A Taliban delegation is holding intra-Afghan talks, sponsored by Russia, and attended by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, leaders of various opposition parties and tribal chiefs of the country. This is significant as it is the first time the Taliban met with political parties of Afghanistan. For a permanent solution, all sections within Afghanistan have to be in the picture. Attending the discussions with Karzai are several important figures. This includes Haneef Atmar, a former national security adviser, who is running against President Ashraf Ghani in the presidential elections later this year. Former Governor Atta Muhammad Noor was also in the team.

The missing link here is the Afghan government. So far, the Taliban has refused to sit down and negotiate with Ghani. At the same time, the Taliban is continuing its military strikes against security forces across the country. There was no talk of a ceasefire during the Qatar discussions. This is bad news for Ghani. So far, he is nowhere in the picture. Are the Americans preparing to dump him?  He was put there mainly with US backing. So where does this leave the much-talked about red lines drawn up by Karzai and backed by the international community on an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process? When he was president, the Taliban had consistently refused to talk to Karzai. But the former president said he had come to Moscow in search of peace and was ready to hear what the Taliban delegation had to say. After all, this was the first time the Taliban was talking to political leaders of the country, a definite step forward.

Ghani has watched with a great deal of concern the latest attempts at peace-making by the US and Russia. He complained that cutting out the legitimate government of Afghanistan was undermining the already fragile Afghan state. But is anyone listening to him? Is Ashraf Ghani’s time up?

It is too early to say. In the past, the Taliban proved to be tough negotiators. The presidential elections in the country are due in July. But if talks between the Taliban and the US progress well and a political settlement on power-sharing is worked out, the elections ahead of a peace deal become meaningless.

One thing is clear. The Americans are in a hurry. President Trump wants to bring back American soldiers deployed abroad, be it Syria, where he claims to have defeated the ISIS, or Afghanistan. Former US President Barack Obama had already brought home a majority of American troops stationed in Afghanistan. Trump is eager to get back the rest of the 8,000 or so troops there.

This is precisely the reason why the talks in Qatar went off well. The Taliban had consistently said that all foreign troops should leave Afghanistan before peace can prevail. Trump is willing to do so. In return, the Taliban has assured the US that it will not allow either the Al-Qaeda or the ISIS to use their country for terror strikes in the US mainland. The 9/11 terror attack happened when the Taliban was in power. Their former chief, the one-eyed Mullah Omar, had given shelter to Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden who plotted the suicide attacks from his home in the mountains of Afghanistan. Considering that the Taliban has no ambitions of launching a global jihad and is interested basically in Afghanistan, it will not be difficult for it to keep its word of forbidding jihadi groups from operating from its soil against the US.

But the deal-breaker could be the power-sharing arrangement. Having control of over 65 to 70 percent of territory and carrying off terror strikes at will, the Taliban’s military success naturally gives it an upper hand at the negotiating table. One thing is clear, the people of Afghanistan are not willing to go back to the ways of the Taliban regime. It had taken Afghanistan back to medieval times when it ruled from 1996  till 2001, when they were thrown out by US and NATO forces.

Afghans will no longer tolerate the ban on girls going to school or women not being allowed to go out without a male member of the family accompanying them. The ban on music as well as public flogging, and worse still, public beheadings, will be a big no-no. Having got their hard-earned freedom, guaranteed and protected by the international community, no peace deal which does not respect the Afghan Constitution will be acceptable to a majority of Afghans.

All these will be major sticking points. Pakistan, which will play a key role behind the scenes, would like to ensure that India’s footprints in Afghanistan are minimised. The Pakistan military wants a pro-Islamabad, anti-India regime in place in Kabul. The Pakistan military has been concerned about India spreading its wings in a country which is its immediate neighbour. It has tried all kinds of terror tactics to frighten India into leaving Afghanistan. There were two terror strikes at the Indian mission in Kabul. The first was in 2008 when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a car and killed India’s defence attaché, a young foreign service officer and 57 Afghan civilians and wounded hundreds. The next year, another suicide bombing occurred near the embassy, leading to the death of 17 Afghans. Pakistan worked through the Haqqani network to get at Indian interests.

Pakistan’s spy agency and its army have often accused India of using its consulates in Afghanistan to destabilise its restive Balochistan province, where the locals have long been fighting the federal government.

Gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan through a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul has always been the mantra of the Pakistan army.

South Block’s worry is that Trump in his efforts to quickly pull out of Afghanistan may strike a deal with Pakistan. After all, Pakistan still has enormous clout over the Taliban leadership and members of the Quetta Shura continue to guide the movement. In a quick-fix deal, while US interests might be protected, what would happen to others? If required, the ISI would not hesitate to get Islamists to target India. The situation in Kashmir and lynchings of Muslims by cow vigilante groups have led to charges of Muslim minorities becoming a target here.

But these, at the moment, remain mainly concerns. Whether a peace deal finally comes through remains to be seen. “The Taliban can be unpredictable, but so far, the talks have gone well. They seem to have mellowed in the last few years,” a former Indian envoy to Kabul said on condition of anonymity.

India has also reached out to all sections of Afghans and tribal groups in recent years.

Sending two retired diplomats to attend a Taliban meet held in Moscow in November was a good move. Moreover, thanks to the excellent development work in the country, Indians are popular there. That will not change in a hurry. But peace talks are moving at a fast pace at the moment. After the intra-Afghan talks wind up, the Taliban is scheduled to meet US negotiators on February 25. But as the saying goes, there is many a slip between cup and lip.

Indian diplomats familiar with Afghanistan believe that the goodwill earned by India will not dissipate even if the Taliban comes to power.

Delhi need not worry even if the Taliban rules Kabul. The Taliban itself has changed and may not repeat its earlier mistakes.

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