The roundtable on India’s options in Afghanistan was held in Bengaluru on 18th September 2019 at the Takshashila Institution’s office. The participants were businesspersons, diplomats, academics and journalists who have worked in Afghanistan.
The context for discussion was the sudden cancellation of the United States (US)-Taliban talks on 8th September 2019. Cancellation of talks was unexpected and yet was welcomed in India. With this backdrop, the Takshashila organized a roundtable discussion to discuss India’s options in Afghanistan.
The discussion was divided into two sessions. The first session dealt with the latest political developments in Afghanistan, the status of US-Taliban talks, and prospects for the Presidential elections in Afghanistan. The second session focused on India’s options in Afghanistan given the evolving situation.
During the first session, the discussion was centred on the following points:
- The key US demand from the Taliban is to not allow Al-Qaeda to operate in Afghanistan and launch attacks using Afghan soil. On the other hand, China and Russia are more concerned about the growing presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan.
- Given the worsening relationship with Iran, there is a possibility that the US might redefine its mission objectives in Afghanistan.
- The Taliban has realised that the US is in a hurry to leave and therefore, they are likely to get a deal that favours them.
- Taliban doesn’t recognise the legitimate National Unity Government (NUG) and continues to resist negotiating with it. Moreover, the US sidelining the NUG from talks has hurt its credibility.
During the discussion, it emerged that the Taliban of 2019 is not the same as the Taliban of 1996-2001. As of now, there are 24 states ready to recognise the Taliban. However, the problem with the current Taliban is that they are no longer a cohesive unit. In fact, given this fragmentation, the Taliban’s ability to deliver on its commitments is also being questioned.
Related to this is the question of Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and the ability to influence political developments in the country. As per the negotiated deal, Pakistan and China were supposed to be guarantors of the Taliban’s behaviour. The Taliban regime in Kabul is likely to facilitate Pakistan’s desire to establish strategic depth in Afghanistan. It is also likely that Pakistan may train anti-India terrorists in Afghanistan. It is this scenario that worries India the most.
Although the deal was negotiated between the US and the Taliban, the intra-Afghan dialogue was also supposed to take place after the deal was signed. However, the integration of Taliban fighters in the Afghan National Army also remains a contentious issue. Discussants agreed that answers to all these questions could emerge only from the final contours of the deal.
The second session discussed India’s options in Afghanistan. Although the immediate reaction in India saw this development positively, divergence on the US presence in Afghanistan still remains.
- The first viewpoint argues that the US presence in Afghanistan is in India’s interests because it supports the NUG and also keeps the Taliban as well as Pakistan under check.
- The second viewpoint argues that the US withdrawal is an opportunity because Pakistan and China are likely to get entangled in Afghanistan.
India would also like to ensure that future Afghanistan does not become a training centre for anti-India terror activities. India has stakes in the stability and security of Afghanistan. A few recommendations that emerged out of the discussion were:
- India should convert its goodwill in Afghanistan into real leverage. India should re-establish contacts with old friends in Afghanistan such as the former Northern Alliance and engage with Pashtuns as well.
- India should open a channel of communication with the Doha group of Taliban and explore ways to secure India’s interests in Afghanistan. India’s engagement with Afghanistan cannot happen only from the prism of countering Pakistan.
- India should create employment opportunities for locals by implementing small and medium level projects.
- India should stay engaged with all the major stakeholders in Afghanistan including the US, Russia, China and Iran.
Read the full report:Meeting Report – Indias Options in Afghanistan