A message purportedly from Mullah Omar, the mysterious head of the original Taliban regime, has endorsed the peace talks between the Afghan insurgents and the government. This is designed to provide a fillip to the talks, set to resume shortly. Omar’s endorsement will only strengthen Indian concerns that this specific process is being masterminded by the Pakistani military. The endgame of the talks, therefore, is suspect and less about an independent, stable Afghan regime than about making Kabul a proxy of Rawalpindi. Since Ashraf Ghani was made president, Pakistan has had reason to be optimistic. Mr Ghani has shown a desire to end the present civil war at almost any price, including kowtowing to Islamabad. He had sought to force Afghanistan’s intelligence services into a subordinate relationship with Pakistan’s ISI.
However, the Pakistani military was supposed to have turned down the Taliban’s traditional spring offensive in return. Nothing of the sort happened. The Afghan National Army saw casualties increase by over a quarter. For many, both in Kabul and New Delhi, this was proof that Rawalpindi’s claims to seek a negotiated power-sharing arrangement in Kabul were fictitious, that the talks were a thinly disguised attempt at snatch and grab.
A clear picture of what is happening within the Taliban’s ranks is difficult to get. Many are only marginally less hostile to Pakistan than they are to the Kabul regime. Some want negotiations. Some believe the continuing US troop withdrawal means military victory is within grasp and talks are pointless. Irrespective of Pakistan’s motives, Omar’s message seems to indicate that Rawalpindi is struggling to keep the talks alive and hopes that the mullah’s intervention will infuse greater legitimacy into the process -- among the Taliban. Whether that is the case is yet to be seen and the trajectory of the talks is more likely to be decided by a multiplicity of factors, including the military prowess of the Kabul government.
India is rightly wary of a peace process so strongly tainted by Pakistan’s influence. But it is important to realise that India, so long as it is unable to provide Kabul weapons or sufficient money, will have little say in Afghanistan. This, despite a recognition that events in Afghanistan are a key determinant of Pakistani behaviour towards India. Crudely, the more Islamabad is bogged down on its northwest the less problem it can cause to its southeast. Which is why India should be more involved in the whole process than it is at present.