Everyone in Afghanistan is talking with the Taliban. While New Delhi is little more than a mute observer of these negotiations, their consequences for India will be considerable. But India should not expect too much good news from talks with militant groups like the Haqqani network, whose main patrons are Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
India can understandably be in two minds about reports that Kabul and Washington, with Islamabad serving as an interlocutor, are holding peace talks with elements of the Afghan Taliban.
Almost anything that allows Afghans to put down their guns and return to normalcy is a plus for India. However, New Delhi can rightly be worried at how much of the goodwill that Afghans have for India will be allowed to manifest itself in a Kabul regime that includes Taliban elements.
The present round of negotiations seems to be a consequence of all-round weariness. The Obama administration has been desperate to begin a US pullout from Afghanistan even before it was elected. President Hamid Karzai has been trying to find a like-minded Taliban leader for years, in large part because he fears a US pullout.
Pakistan is in less of a hurry, but the rise of the Pakistan Taliban is sufficient cause for it to want some stability. Finally, there is some evidence that the depredations of US drones has led even a hardline group like the Haqqani network to accept negotiations as an option. But there should be little doubt that Pakistan and the Taliban are playing a slightly stronger hand. The US and Afghanistan distrust each other so much as to almost be two separate players at the table.
If there is anything India should seek to do in this game, it would be to strengthen the hand of the US and the Afghan government. This will not be easy. But there are signs India has broken free of its previous dependence
on the old Northern Alliance and has made considerable inroads among the Pashtun majority.
Polls show Afghans of all stripes give India the highest favourable rating of any country. New Delhi should leverage this, along with its relationships with other Afghan neighbours, to try and tilt the balance at the negotiating table.
This may not be all that much, but in this version of the Great Game no one is overwhelmingly dominant and small differences can have a large impact.