The urgency with which the Trump Administration is pushing ahead for a deal with the Taliban has caused understandable nervousness in several capitals in the region. After the last round of talks in the Qatar capital of Doha, the chief negotiator for the US, Zalmay Khalilzad, declared that an agreement had been reached in principle. From what little has emerged from the American side, the Taliban have committed to not allowing Afghan territory to be used to launch terrorist attacks against the US; in return, the US has agreed to the top Taliban demand that American troops should leave. But the agreement hangs on the Taliban declaring a ceasefire and agreeing to talks with the Afghan government, which has so far had no role in the process. The Taliban have not said yet whether they agree to these conditions. Given their unsavoury track record, the expectations from this “peace process” are low.
More rounds of talks are in the pipeline, but whatever the details and commitments, what happens after the US exit will depend entirely on the Taliban. A rerun of the 1990s when the Taliban fought an assortment of warlords to seize power is not entirely ruled out. For India, which has built on its centuries-old ties with Afghanistan with $3 billion in development assistance over the last 10 years, the spectre of a Pakistan proxy in power in Kabul is now looming large. Delhi is said to have conveyed its apprehensions to Khalilzad when he visited in January, including its opposition to the rumoured plan for an interim government to oversee power-sharing between the Taliban and other Afghan groups and changes to the Constitution.
Holding no trump cards in this game, India is now engaging with China and Iran, and with a range of Afghan actors including former President Hamid Karzai, who is said to be playing a key role in the US-Taliban process. India aims to secure its own strategic and economic interests in Afghanistan, while backing the position taken by the government in Kabul on the talks. President Ashraf Ghani said recently that since he took office in 2014, over 45,000 Afghan troops have been killed, and that Afghans yearn for peace more than anything else. But he has also expressed reservations at the haste in the Trump administration to close a deal and urged the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government. The day may not be far when India has to consider what has seemed unthinkable as yet — reaching out to the Taliban, at least sections of it that are independent minded.