In summer 2011, Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef — long-serving Taliban diplomat, then long-serving Guantanamo Bay inmate — checked in at London’s Charing Cross Hotel for two days of informal talks on Afghanistan’s future, followed by a discreet weekend hunting grouse in Scotland. Zaeef was the advance guard of a quiet diplomatic project to end the fighting in Afghanistan by, so to speak, persuading the Taliban to swap war for the blood sport of the rich.
Four years on, Afghanistan government negotiators, nudged by the US and ISI, are still trying to close the deal. In meetings at the Doha Four Seasons, and in resorts on the city’s fringes, Ashraf Ghani’s envoys have offered the Taliban a power sharing deal.
The outcome of this high-stakes game is opening a fundamental question for India’s Afghanistan diplomacy: What should India do — indeed, should it do anything at all?
President Ghani, diplomatic sources say, is willing to make sweeping concessions for peace: constitutional amendments that would guarantee the Taliban a share of power, and give its clerics the power to roll back progressive features of the country’s post 9/11 life. He hopes the ISI will persuade the Taliban to fight, rather than slaughter its way to power as the role of the US in the country diminishes.
In essence, dialogue optimists hope the deal will make Afghanistan a kind of downmarket Saudi Arabia, ferociously reactionary and undemocratic, but economically stable, able at last to unlock its giant mineral and metal reserves.
This outcome would see India nudged out of Afghanistan, to appease Pakistan. That would bruise India’s ego. In practical terms, though, it would be no big loss: India’s access to energy-rich central Asia, through the port it is now building in Iran, would remain untouched. Indeed, Afghanistan would need access to Indian markets for its resources for its plans to be viable.
But Ghani’s plans have alarmed Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities, and the regions in its north and west — the vanguard of the resistance to the Taliban before 9/11. Indeed, communities like the Hazara, long Afghanistan’s underclass, have capitalised on educational opportunities opened up in the post-9/11 world, and have dramatically improved their lives.
Leaders of these communities — as well as youth and women’s groups from all communities — fear the price of peace may prove a lot more than the cost of war.
The deal, thus, could potentially open the road to civil war, or something resembling it — and then, India’s friends would come calling. In the build-up to 9/11, India — along with Russia and Iran — backed the Taliban’s adversaries, seeking to deny Pakistan strategic space. The decision came with costs: figures like Zaeef make no secret of the fact that the Taliban facilitated the hijackers of IC814 to retaliate against India.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s decision to support the Northern Alliance against Taliban savagery was honourable — but there are no prizes for being the good guy in geopolitics.
President Ghani, for his part, knows New Delhi isn’t going to save the regime from the Taliban. His predecessor, Hamid Karzai, sought limited Indian military aid — and watched New Delhi dither and vacillate. New Delhi has no stomach, either, for committing troops for peacekeeping in Afghanistan. The $ 2 billion-plus India has pumped into Afghanistan is generous, but still small change compared to what China or the West bring to the table.
So, what should India do? Does India have a dog in this race at all?
It is often argued that jihadists will gain a safe haven in Afghanistan if the Taliban come back. That isn’t true. Even a Taliban-run Afghanistan will offer jihadist groups little that Pakistan doesn’t already — after all, terrorists responsible for crimes against India, now living lives of ease under ISI protection, have no reason to swap their comfortable life for the uncertainties of mud castles in the Islamic Emirate.
Having said that, an Islamist triumph in Afghanistan will have serious costs for India, too. It will breathe life, and aggression, into enemies of India like the Lashkar-e-Toiba — who, notwithstanding their brutalities, have realised they cannot defeat the Indian state. It will empower Indian Islamists, already fantasising about sparking off a communal insurgency in India.
For now, it makes sense for India to match its aims to its chequebook, and expand aid that has already won it the friendship of Afghanistan’s people. There may come a time soon, though, when India’s friends in the region come asking for guns, not butter. It’s time for New Delhi to think hard about what its answer will be.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines