US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently wrote a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proposing that the United Nations organize a meeting of foreign ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the US to discuss a “unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan.”
This would be the first major step to “move matters more fundamentally and quickly toward a settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.”
While India would be given a significant say through this proposal, the factors involved may not be in accordance with its strategic interests. New Delhi must recalibrate its Afghanistan strategy if it wishes to materialize any strategic gains in the country in the months and years to come.
Blinken made it clear that establishing an interim government in Afghanistan would in effect put the Taliban representation at par with the elected government. However, looking at it in a straightforward fashion, he basically asked Ghani to step down for “a new and inclusive government.”
Moreover, Blinken went to the extent of warning Ghani about “a spring offensive by the Taliban,” and that the security situation in the country will “worsen” considering that the Taliban “could make rapid territorial gains” after the “American military withdrawal by May 1 as was committed in the Taliban peace deal signed under [former US president Donald] Trump.”
Such a proposal was initially opposed by Ghani. “Be assured that as long as I am alive, they will not see the formation of an interim government. I am not like those willows that bend with the wind,” Ghani said last weekend.
However, in the past few days, Ghani has said he would step down from power, but only after elections are held – this comes as pressure continues to mount on the Afghan president to form an interim government that includes the Taliban.
At an official event on March 16, Ghani said, “If the Taliban are ready for elections tomorrow, we are also ready…. But I am not ready to transfer the power to my successor without elections.”
Looking beyond the welcome proposal of including India in the talks for Afghanistan’s future, there are three main issues for India.
First, Ghani is perceived warmly in India given the robust ties New Delhi has had with Kabul during his term as president; moreover, his stepping down might lead to uncertainties for the future of India-Afghanistan relations.
Second, there is a lack of constructive engagement between New Delhi and the Taliban; as a result, the group seems unlikely to emerge as a strong partner of India, in contrast to Pakistan and China.
Third, Blinken has also roped in Turkey to mediate between the Afghan government and the Taliban to contain violence and facilitate the establishment of a “Peace Government.”
India’s role in Afghanistan, especially its engagement with the Taliban, has remained marginal; however, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s presence during the Intra-Afghan Negotiations in Doha last year hinted at a possible change.
Jaishankar emphasized India’s strong support for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled” peace process. Looking beyond this event, however, there remain serious inconsistencies regarding India’s approach to the Taliban, which can be traced to the time when New Delhi supported groups opposed to the Taliban when they took over in the 1990s.
If India continues to shun the Taliban, what role can it possibly play during a UN-convened meeting of foreign ministers for the establishment of a “unified approach” to stability in Afghanistan? Moreover, all the other participants proposed by Blinken are on much better terms with the Taliban.
India must therefore recalibrate its Afghanistan policy given the reality of the situation after a US withdrawal. This is needed because the Taliban will be expected to constitute an essential part of the government in Kabul soon enough.
Moreover, a constructive and engaging relationship with the Taliban would give India important leverage over the future of Afghanistan. This is especially important because it would allow New Delhi to offset strategically the efforts of Islamabad and Beijing to compromise Indian interests in the country.