Image: iStock
Image: iStock

The “Moscow format” is a new initiative aimed at achieving peace and prosperity in Afghanistan. Since the US-led peace process has not produced the desired results, Russia has taken the initiative and invited all the stakeholders in Afghanistan to sit down at the table and chart out a roadmap for Afghanistan’s future.

The Russian Foreign Ministry invited Afghanistan, the US, Pakistan, Iran, India, the five bordering Central Asian states, and the Taliban for the talks in Moscow. Initially, the US, Afghanistan, and India had refused to participate in the process but eventually, all of them agreed to take part. India was represented by Amar Sinha, former ambassador to Afghanistan, and TCA Raghavan, former ambassador to Pakistan. Since the decision, India has been under increased scrutiny over its involvement in the talks and sharing the table with Taliban representatives, hence giving them legitimate status.

India’s reconciliation with the Taliban

Since the ousting of the Taliban government, India has supported the successive governments in Afghanistan. The Indian Army is actively involved in training and providing weapons to the Afghan National Army for their fight against the Taliban insurgency. It had also denied the Taliban any sort of recognition. India has been investing heavily in Afghanistan’s infrastructure and gradually increasing its influence in the country through official and non-official channels.

India also receives huge amounts of development funds from various international sources for building infrastructure in Afghanistan but all of its efforts seem to go to waste. As time passes, the Afghan government’s grip on the country becomes weaker as the Taliban gain ground. According to unofficial sources, more than 60% of Afghanistan is under Taliban control, and this percentage might increase with time. The Afghan government, which is mired in corruption and inefficiency, has failed to deliver to the Afghan people.

The Afghan National Army is also in a grim state. A report issued by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a US government oversight authority, showed that the Americans have bungled the training of Afghan security forces at a cost of nearly $70 billion. US efforts to train the Afghan security forces have been hampered by governance failure and poor instruction. The auditor of SIGAR publicly lamented, “It appears insurgents are at the end of our supply chain.”

Under these circumstances, India might have realized that it placed its bet on the wrong side and has since made a strategic shift, trying to move closer to the Taliban. The Indian delegation has agreed to sit down with the Taliban, hence ending their years-old policy of non-recognition. India’s economic interests, as well as its political interests, are now tied up with the recognition of the Taliban.

These can be described as economic interests because of the heavy investments and the number of Indian personnel working on the ground in Afghanistan; for instance, the abduction of seven Indian nationals has been blamed on the Taliban. India could possibly give the Taliban recognition in return for their assurance that they will not attack or disrupt Indian-led projects in Afghanistan. Looking at the political side, India does not want to be left out in this highly important Afghan peace process. It wants to have a stake in whatever outcome is reached.

The Indian dilemma

India’s influence in Afghanistan depends on the Afghan government, which itself has no credibility among the Afghan people and the Taliban. The Taliban negotiators in the Moscow Format have ruled out any possibility of negotiations with the Afghan government. Instead, they insist on talking directly with the Americans. No matter how much India invests in Afghanistan or increases its goodwill, it will always have problems dealing with Afghanistan as it views its policies in Afghanistan through the lens of Pakistan.

It does not want a Pakistan-friendly regime in Kabul. On the other hand, it also does not want to upset their only allies in Kabul, the Afghan government. India has decided to play their cards both ways, being “everybody’s friend.” The policy of being “everyone’s friend” is not very convincing as in the end you are “nobody’s friend,” hence no one can really trust your word. The Indian dilemma, firstly, is that it has tried to replace Pakistan, which is unnatural as they do not share any land border. Secondly, to antagonize Pakistan, they have supported anyone who is anti-Pakistan, even at the cost of ignoring the ground realities – i.e. The Taliban.

The Taliban had a bitter experience with the Indians, who trained the Afghan National Army and provided it with ammunition

Pakistan has ethnic, linguistic, religious and neighborly relations with Afghanistan. No one can replace Pakistan’s role in the peace process. India for the last few years has been introduced in Afghanistan to bring about peace and stability. The experiment, however, did not work. Since then things have gotten worse for the US, the Afghans, and the world. The Taliban had a bitter experience with the Indians, who trained the Afghan National Army and provided it with ammunition.

The Taliban, based on their historical experiences, would be very reluctant to enter into any kind of communication with the Indians. They would also keep a strong check on Indian initiatives in Afghanistan as the Indians had funded the Northern Alliance and the Afghan Army against their movement.

New initiatives for peace

New initiatives for peace in Afghanistan are welcomed and may change the scenario in the whole region. Over the last four decades, Afghanistan and its people have suffered a great deal. Since the Soviet intervention in 1979, Afghanistan has been in a perpetual state of war. For the first 10 years, the US-led a war against the Soviet army, then after the withdrawal of USSR, the US also left Afghanistan. A vacuum was created, and a power struggle among various factions of the mujahideen left the country in an internal state of war for another decade.

After 9/11, the US-led NATO forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, and to date, the war is still ongoing with no end in sight. NATO allies have been fighting in Afghanistan for 17 long years, but are still without control of the whole country. Even now, the US Army cannot move freely and fearlessly outside of its airbases and camps. Taliban forces still control major parts of the country.

Only a peace process involving all the stakeholders can actually bring about peace in Afghanistan. The peace process should, however, be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned; only then can a sustainable peace be achieved in Afghanistan.

Peace in Afghanistan will allow the Central Asian states, Russia, China, India and Pakistan to engage in economic activity with the rest of the world through the Arabian Sea. Afghanistan as the main trade route should be restored at the soonest possible time. It will help Afghanistan and its neighboring states improve their economies and eradicate poverty. It has the potential to change the fate of the whole region.

Chinese projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the objectives of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization )SCO) can be realized only with a stable Afghanistan. At the recent SCO summit, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was invited as a guest and observer, signifying Afghanistan’s importance. Hopefully, the country will soon join the SCO, the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor and the BRI. A stable and prosperous Afghanistan is desirable to everyone.

Zamir Awan

Professor Zamir Ahmed Awan is a sinologist at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) Chinese Studies Center of Excellence, Islamabad, Pakistan. Posted to the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing as science counselor (technical affairs) from 2010-16, he was responsible for promoting cooperation between Pakistan and China in science, technology, and higher education.

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