There was no shortage of irony when the Taliban and the Afghan delegation took their place at the table for the “intra-Afghan talks” in a palatial setting in Doha, Qatar on September 12. It was a coincidence that the talks began a day after the 19th anniversary of 9/11, the day of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York that shook the world, and ended Taliban rule in Afghanistan as the US angrily declared a UN Security Council-backed “war on terror”. The US is now hurrying to end that war with a forced marriage between two incompatibles — a western-style presidential Islamic democracy backed by the international community, and medieval fundamentalist Islamist militants — in time for President Donald Trump to take home most American troops in Afghanistan just before the presidential elections. After two decades, the Taliban see themselves as having won this war. The Taliban delegation at the talks calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name of its 1996-2001 government. It does not recognise the Afghan government, whose negotiators are referred to as the Islamic Republic delegation. In any case, the Taliban delegation seems more government-like than the government’s, whose composition reflects the pulls and pressures on President Ashraf Ghani.
The government delegation has said it wants a ceasefire first, but the Taliban would hardly want to surrender their most powerful card at the get-go. Just in the first week of September, Taliban fighters were busy making forays into territory that is not under their control, for instance in the Panjshir province in the north. With all these elements swirling in the mix, the uncertainties ahead are unfortunately easier to foresee than any outcome that can herald real peace.
India, which has a long relationship with Afghanistan and its people, has been an onlooker in the process. The reason is that Pakistan, its ability to deliver the Taliban to the talks table, was more valuable to the US than anything India, with its suspicion of Taliban as a proxy of the Pakistan Army and ISI, could offer. India has so far said it will not engage with the Taliban until they enter the political mainstream. But with his virtual participation in the opening ceremony of the talks, and his remarks reiterating Delhi’s backing for an “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led” settlement, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has sought to signal that India remains an important regional player. But at the moment Delhi has little choice but to wait and watch, see how far the process goes, and how it might reshape the region.