Talking to the Taliban

Can reconciliation protect India's long-term interests in Afghanistan?

By SHASHANK JOSHI | 1 November 2013

THIS JUNE, an unassuming compound in the West Bay neighbourhood of the Qatari capital, Doha, became the site of a high diplomatic farce whose aftershocks are still being felt in Washington, Islamabad, and New Delhi. As horrified Afghan officials watched on their televisions in Kabul from 2,000 kilometres away, members of the Taliban gathered in the compound’s courtyard. With the pomp that might surround an embassy opening, they cut a ribbon, hoisted a white flag from their 1996–2001 rule in Afghanistan, and sang an anthem. On the outside wall of the compound was a plaque that read “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, the name of their former government.

For the Taliban, it was a propaganda coup. Their Doha office, which had grown out of initial contacts between American, German, Qatari, and Taliban officials in 2010, was intended to serve as a platform for confidence-building measures such as prisoner swaps and, eventually, talks. The ultimate aim was “reconciliation” between Afghanistan’s democracy and a gradually disarmed Taliban, thereby easing the long-term pressure on the Afghan state after most Western combat forces, which will have been fighting the insurgency continuously for over a decade, leave next year.

In theory, Afghanistan’s government supported these moves. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been calling the Taliban his “brothers” for years. But Karzai has always been nervous about this diplomacy, not least because it played badly amongst many nationalists at home. In 2012, for example, he had withdrawn his ambassador to Qatar in protest at feeling cut out of talks. This time, the process was supposed to be “owned and led” by the Afghans, and Karzai had been promised by the Obama administration, in writing, that the Taliban’s office would not look like a government-in-exile. It was agreed that its name would be the dull-sounding “Political Bureau of the Afghan Taliban”. Largely as a result of Qatar’s ineptitude in enforcing those understandings, that promise was gratuitously broken. Karzai’s typically petulant response was to cancel crucial talks over a US–Afghan security agreement, which will determine how many US troops can stay behind beyond 2014.

With or without US troops, Afghanistan will be fragile. General Nick Carter, who was until July the deputy commander of the NATO-led international coalition in Afghanistan, might be expected to give a rosy view of things, but he acknowledged this summer that Kabul would not control all of its territory in the years ahead. He spoke of “local political solutions”, a euphemism for Taliban dominance in parts of the country. If the Afghan army then splinters along ethnic lines, as some experts predict, a civil war is a realistic longer-term prospect. Nearly all of the gains of the past decade and a half would then be lost. This is why talks—which continue, albeit slowly—matter.

As one of the important regional powers involved in Afghanistan, India might be expected to take a central role in this diplomacy. For many Indian officials, however, the Doha episode vindicated longstanding suspicions about reconciliation, and the country has remained absent from talks. Indian fears about the process are understandable, but overwrought. They misrepresent the pace and limits of the incipient diplomacy, and underplay the risk that the status quo ends up looking every bit as bad as the outcome of reconciliation.

The dominant Indian view is that the West has botched its war, failing to break the Taliban’s back with a 30,000-strong troop surge in 2010. Now, the thinking runs, the West seeks a face-saving exit by resurrecting Islamist rule in Kabul with the help of Pakistan, the Taliban’s primary benefactors. (Indeed, the Taliban’s ribbon-cutting ceremony looked to many Indian observers more like an American and European stitch-up of the Afghan government than a consensual process—why else would Karzai disown it?) As the veteran reporter Praveen Swami put it, the US is “subcontracting the task of keeping the peace in Afghanistan to the ISI”, Pakistan’s intelligence service, which has played an important role in supporting the Taliban since before 9/11.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that such fears are widely held in India. Afghanistan’s own ambassador in Delhi warned Indians in an op-ed in The Hindu a few days after the Doha debacle that “the forces of terrorism were being rewarded at the expense of the democratic gains”. India’s diplomats, spooks, soldiers, and aid workers watched as India’s economic, political, and capacity-building role in Afghanistan bloomed in the decade after 2001: India built Afghanistan’s new parliament building, trained its army officers, invested in its mineral wealth, and pledged $1.5 billion in aid between 2002 and 2012. Now they worry that India will bear the brunt of the Taliban’s return, long after the Western architects of reconciliation have withdrawn across continents. Much as after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, combat-hardened fighters—including members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008—will move eastwards into Kashmir. Pakistani-sponsored attacks on Indians in Afghanistan, diminished in recent years, will flare up again. (In August, when India’s consulate in Jalalabad was attacked by Lashkar-e-Taiba suicide bombers, it was considered a taste of things to come.) India’s massive investments, including a $10 billion stake in the Hajigak mine, will be jeopardised. A flag and anthem might not seem like much now, but they represent the thin end of a wedge.

India’s position appears to be based on two conflicting assumptions: that Afghanistan is in deep trouble, and that a troubled state has no need for compromise with its enemies. India has accommodated with armed rebels at home—even going as far as to amend its constitution, most notably for the formation of Nagaland—and Indians have always been comfortable with talking while fighting. Why, therefore, are Indians so resistant to contacts with the Taliban?

In part, this stems from a mistaken tendency to view the Taliban in simplistic and internationally threatening terms. As the Indian defence journalist Ajai Shukla astutely notes, “the Taliban has been painted as a monolithic clone of Pakistan”, whereas Mullah Omar is in fact a “far more stubborn, independent leader who resents ISI bullying”. Omar has also been losing control for years. Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, who have written extensively on the Taliban, argue that a “younger generation of commanders” are increasingly “independent, both financially and ideologically from the old-school Kandahari Taliban leadership”.

But Indian fears also arise from an acute—and not unfounded—sense of victimhood that lingers from an earlier phase of the Afghan war. In 2009, the late Richard Holbrooke was appointed United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He swiftly became India’s bête noire, for trying to absorb the Kashmir dispute into his remit. The implication was that the road to peace in Kabul went through Kashmir: Pakistan’s hostility to India in Afghanistan, and therefore its support for the Taliban, was explained by Indian intransigence rather than Pakistan’s historic meddling.

Around the same time, a major report by General Stanley McChrystal, then commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, cautioned that “increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures”. Only the previous year, US intelligence concluded that the ISI had assisted the radical Haqqani network in a deadly attack on India’s embassy in Kabul. Indians were understandably furious: they were building things in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s proxies were bombing them, and India was getting blamed.

Holbrooke is the spectre haunting today’s diplomatic efforts. When one of his successors, James Dobbins, praised India’s involvement in Afghanistan this year, the Times of India mystifyingly titled its report “US ties India’s Afghanistan role to Pak peace”. But American officials no longer suggest any such thing. They welcomed the recent dialogue between Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, but they did not view it through an Afghan lens. Pakistan’s generals may have different ideas, but not a single American or British official I have met—whether in Washington, London, Kabul, or New Delhi—expects India to shut down its Afghan consulates, stop its development projects, or sever its ties to the ministries in Kabul. Indeed, for the past four years, the US has encouraged India to support Afghan security forces. It’s the Indian government that is cagey.

The Indian caricature of talks as a Pakistan-orchestrated ploy both overstates how far along the reconciliation process is, and elides unambiguous, stark red lines that were set out by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over three years ago: insurgents must stop fighting, cut ties to Al Qaida, and abide by the Afghan constitution. Reading the Indian press, one would scarcely be aware that these conditions existed. Where they are mentioned, they are misrepresented. Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary, warned that “these red lines are being blurred by NATO’s anxiety to withdraw”. But there is no evidence for this whatsoever. Karzai himself said in October that “the return of the Taliban will not undermine progress”. And for all the talk of a face-saving departure, no Western official thinks that a deal will be struck before the majority of troops are out. A dignified exit would be nice, but it isn’t driving talks.

Will the Taliban ever respect the red lines? The evidence is mixed. A study published by the Royal United Services Institute last year, based on high-level interviews, found that “the Taliban leadership and base deeply regret their past association with Al Qaida”. This can’t be taken on trust. But it is becoming increasingly clear that at least parts of the Taliban—especially the older generation—are less interested in exporting violence. Of course, the Taliban is not the only insurgent group in Afghanistan. Others, like the Haqqani network, are closer to Pakistan, more extreme, and surely less reconcilable. India is right to be wary of their reported inclusion in talks.

The West’s approach to Afghanistan has two planks: strengthening Afghanistan’s security forces, and trying to fashion a political settlement. India approves of the first but denigrates the second. In reality, however, they are complementary. The purpose is to negotiate with insurgents from a position of strength. India’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, Vivek Katju, also writing in The Hindu after the Doha incident, criticised American “strategic desperation” and insisted that Karzai “can meet the current challenge even now if he abandons the narrow politics he has pursued since 2001”. But this is to confuse Karzai with Bismarck: Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces—over 5,000 soldiers a month are quitting the army—cannot fight the insurgency in perpetuity, not without unsustainable injections of cash by a sceptical US Congress.

India is trying to shore up those forces. It will reportedly train over 1,000 Afghan army personnel in 2013–14, roughly twice as many as the previous year. But it is still holding back. This spring, Karzai traveled to Delhi with a wish-list of heavy arms and aircraft. He was rebuffed, in part because of Indian fears that it might disrupt the re-emerging dialogue with Pakistan, but also because, as Praveen Swami put it, “no one is sure the Afghan army will hold together.” Under these circumstances, India is hardly in a position to expect that Western nations continue to funnel billions of dollars annually—$120 billion was spent by the US alone in 2011—to a corrupt and unreformed state, whose own soldiers have inflicted about a tenth of all NATO casualties this year in so-called “green-on-blue” incidents.

If the Taliban could be quelled once and for all, there would be no need for reconciliation. But they cannot, and so there is. India’s interests will undoubtedly be affected if talks defy the odds and turn into a settlement. But those interests will be at greater risk if the insurgency remains at its present strength. Refusing to talk to the Taliban will not forestall their return; it only prevents us from possibly peeling away moderate parts of what is an increasingly fragmented movement, and averting a full-blown civil war.

Giving the Taliban an office may confer some legitimacy, but it also helps free them from the ISI’s malign influence. Previously, Pakistan was able to pressure those Pakistan-based Taliban members—and their families—who tried to talk directly to the Afghan government. This is the fate that befell Taliban operations chief Mullah Baradar, who was arrested in Karachi in 2010 and only released, with Pakistani minders, this year. Indian diplomats are able to talk to Taliban representatives in Qatar such as they never could have done in a Pakistani city. But there is no sign that they have taken advantage of this. India is marginalising itself by complaining from the sidelines, when it could be working to shape the process to its own advantage. Pakistan will never be cut entirely out of the peace process—their geography will always enable them to be spoilers—but the Doha office did create some distance.

There are many things that might have been done better in Afghanistan. The US should not have announced a fixed withdrawal date; it should certainly have made greater efforts to curb Pakistan’s support for the Taliban over the past decade; and it was wrong to keep India on the margins in the early stages of the campaign. But it is far from clear whether these things—or another decade of fighting—would have truly changed the course of the war, given the pathologies of the Afghan regime, its rampant corruption and warlord allies.

Today, the Taliban’s resilience cannot be wished away. But there is much that India and NATO can do together to build up the Afghans’ capabilities in the decade ahead, rather than working on parallel but separate tracks as at present. India’s upgraded training of Afghan officers should be just the start. But there is ultimately no substitute for talks, unless India feels like taking on a chunk of what will become an unacceptable annual $4 billion to $6 billion bill for Afghan security forces or deploying its own troops. Given India’s strong connections to different communities in Afghanistan and its goodwill amongst Afghans, it could play a powerful and positive role in any broad-based peace talks that occur, which would ultimately do more to secure Indian economic and political interests in Afghanistan than the deteriorating status quo. It should start by making its peace with the possibility of reconciliation.

Shashank Joshi is a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government, Harvard University. He previously studied politics and economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. His research focuses on South Asia and the Middle East.


2 thoughts on “Talking to the Taliban”

But why should India talk to the Taliban? A nicely written piece, but it fails to address the question of how legitimate the Taliban faction at Doha is. What faction of the Taliban does the Doha office truly represent? The ones that the ISI are comfortable with, or those that the Quetta Shura has chosen? There are various factions of the Taliban at play here, and there is internecine feuding within the Taliban. Exactly who is being represented by the Doha office?

In politics there is no permanent friend or foe.Some good and influential friends among Talibans are the demand of our national interest.Politics in Afghanistan is treacherous and complicated as was ever . William Dalrymple in his book “Return Of The King”has given a good narrative of the nature of Afghans which still is relevant.

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