India’s Afghan dream will eventually crumble

  0 comments   |     by Ikram Sehgal

A day before the planned secret negotiations between President Donald Trump, President Ashraf Ghani and representatives of the Taliban at Camp David on Sunday, they were cancelled. The meeting was meant to eliminate disagreements that the Afghan President and parts of the US leadership had with the draft peace agreement, the result of almost a year’s negotiations between US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban in Doha. Despite a lack of consensus between the US National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon, the talks had gone on. This was because of the strong wish of President Trump to live up to his promise to get out from Afghanistan before the next election in 2020. After almost twenty years of war his strong desire for withdrawal had been overriding all qualms and resistance among the various elements of the US government. After each of the nine rounds of negotiations between Khalilzad and the Taliban, the US government was consulted for a go ahead. Facing elections next year, Trump was trying to push through an agreement with the Taliban that would allow him to withdraw all or a maximum of American troops. It was Trump’s initiative alone. His NATO allies, the Afghan government and India, a new close ally, were never part of the negotiations but were kept informed about the progress. When President Ghani was shown the latest draft of a peace agreement, he was not allowed to keep a copy of it! There has been disillusionment among those left out from the decision making process no doubt. Germany, Which has a couple of hundred policemen and soldiers only in Afghanistan, decided to stop all projects in Afghanistan and bring a maximum number of Germans home citing security threats while the rest holed up in seemingly secure places in North Afghanistan. Other NATO members might follow suit. To strengthen their political position in the negotiations the Taliban have heightened pressure on Afghan government installations by a series of attacks that took the lives of dozens of Afghans and some foreigners as well. Due to such pressure, the Taliban were able to get many of their demands conceded in the draft peace document so that peace seemed imminent. With the peace deal in jeopardy the Taliban may have overplayed their hand with those latest attacks.

The temporary winners seem to be those forces that have thought peace undesirable and efforts to reach a deal as deplorable. After Ghani and his government the main such power is India. Given its animosity against Pakistan, India has been using Afghanistan and Afghan soil in the last couple of decades to build a ‘second front’ against Pakistan so as to force Pakistan to fight a two-front war. That strategic trick has been rather easy to deploy given the long-standing anti-Pakistan feelings prevalent in Afghanistan because of their refusal to recognize the Durand Line, Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan. For many years now India has shown friendship and support to Afghanistan by keeping a huge diplomatic contingent in the country and pursuing different projects in the infrastructure sector. India was able to leave a footprint in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation in the 1980s employing its close relationship with the Soviets. After the Russian withdrawal and the civil war in Afghanistan, India could only deplore Pakistan’s growing influence in Afghanistan due to its good relations with and support to the Taliban government. Success came to India when Pakistan in a U-turn, dropped its support for the Taliban and sided with the US in October 2001. The US and its NATO allies were fighting and sacrificing their lives and assets while India reaped the fruits.

India has never had any direct military presence in Afghanistan, but the Indian military has been deeply involved in the development of an Afghan national army, a police force and above all the national intelligence service which it virtually runs. For all practical purposes, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security Intelligence (NDSI) is an outpost of RAW. No wonder Amrullah Saleh, Ghani’s Presidential running mate and the former Head of NDSI is the “Indian” candidate in the coming Afghan Presidential election. In Afghanistan, thousands of Indian nationals are working in reconstruction companies, international aid agencies or are Indian government employees working at the consulates and embassies thus widening India’s footprint. All four of India’s consulates are bases for espionage and for funnelling aid to separatist rebels in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. A potent means of Indian influence is education. More than 1,000 Afghan students go to India every year on scholarships provided by the Indian government. Writers and artists benefit from the India-Afghanistan Foundation, a cultural and academic exchange program that gives small grants. This and other educational programs help India cultivate ties with the elite of every Afghan ethnic group. Apart from scholarships, Afghan public servants are granted access to government training institutions in India for periods ranging from a few days to six months. The success of this method is visible: According to the ‘Foreign Policy’ journal, which analysed perceptions about India especially among Pashtuns from Kabul to Kandahar, “the widespread support in the Pashtun heartland for an even greater Indian role in rebuilding the Afghan economy and society is striking”. When US peace negotiations started in earnest, India had to ponder what would be its fate if a peace settlement included a sizeable section of the Taliban in a future Afghan government. So far India has not had any contacts to the Taliban and the Taliban would not have liked to talk to the Indians either. But India has been seeking a dialogue with ethnic Pashtuns, the Taliban’s base. The London Conference in January 2010, in which the US and NATO resolved to include the Taliban in any political solution forced India’s hand in the matter. The stalling of the US peace negotiations with the Taliban may be a temporary gain for India but it seems more to do with the infighting within the US Administration between the US State Department, the National Security Council (NSC) and the Pentagon. The leader of the die-hards against any deal was National Security Advisor John Bolton. He had opposed Pakistan on every issue under the sun but was kept in check by senior hands of the US diplomatic community. He was supported in his venom by Lisa Curtis who was selected by him for the NSC. Bolton seems to have temporarily prevailed over Trump in postponing the talks but his resignation seems a reaction from Trump who was looking forward to a deal, and must have woken up frustrated the next morning. How soon the deal will be put back in place will depend upon Trump getting his policy back on the rails. But to India’s deep frustration, it will happen sooner rather than later

The writer is a senior defence and security analyst

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