Chances of Tashkent conference leading to a consensus within Afghanistan look slim
The road ahead for Afghanistan’s reconstruction will be arduous and blood-soaked and Delhi must exhort the donor constituency to stay the course for the next decade and more
A high-level international conference on Afghanistan opened in Tashkent on March 26, even as Kabul is still recovering from an Islamic State (IS) led terror attack that killed 32 people in the capital on March 21. Just two days later, a car bomb in Helmand killed 14 innocents. The death toll increases in Afghanistan and, alas, occurs so often that it is often ignored in the global news cycles.
Tashkent will see all the major powers and the UN on board and India will be represented by the minister of state for external affairs, MJ Akbar. The conference opens against a backdrop of complex challenges that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has to deal with on the domestic front, including a deteriorating internal security situation. In the end of January, the local Taliban carried out a heinous terror attack in Kabul using an ambulance bomb that killed more than a hundred innocent victims. Clearly, the Afghan security forces are unable to cope with the twin challenge posed by the Taliban and now the IS cadres.
The Ghani-led National Unity Government (NUG) has morphed into a disunity government, given the irreconcilable differences over power-sharing between President Ghani and chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah. This political dissonance is at the core of the fractured governance that plagues Afghanistan and it is unlikely that the Tashkent deliberations will be able to redress this fatal internal flaw.
Concurrently, the Afghan quagmire has been rendered even more intractable by the defiant assertion of the Taliban and the violence they have unleashed over the last 15 years – ever since the US, in a very ill-advised decision, shifted its focus from the stabilisation and reconstruction of Afghanistan to Iraq on March 19, 2003.
In the last 15 years, US policy has wavered depending on the priority accorded by the White House to Afghanistan . This war has seen the US expending many lives and money, but the irony is that the Taliban is now more entrenched in large parts of the country than it was in 2003.
American President Trump has signalled a more robust Afghan policy that has indicted Pakistan for its perfidy in abetting terror but the US is going through major internal convulsions with top officials being summarily dismissed. Earlier in February, the US National Intelligence provided an assessment that is bleak : “The National Unity Government probably will struggle to hold long-delayed parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for July 2018, and to prepare for a presidential election in 2019.” It added that the Afghan security forces “probably will maintain control of most major population centres with coalition force support, but the intensity and geographic scope of Taliban activities will put those centres under continued strain.”
The Tashkent conference hopes to formalise the Ghani proposal to bring the Taliban into the peace process — an initiative that is fraught with many imponderables. At the time, New Delhi had cautiously welcomed this move and noted that “India welcomed the Afghan government’s call to armed groups to cease violence and join national peace and reconciliation process that would protect the rights of all Afghans, including the women, children and the minorities”.
Whether the Taliban will be willing to lay down the gun and accept the Afghan constitution remains suspect if the spate of killings that have racked Kabul and beyond are any indicator. In recent days, there have been allegations made by the US that Moscow is providing arms to the Taliban — a charge vehemently denied by Russia — but this augurs poorly for any meaningful movement towards a violence-free Afghanistan.
India has provided more than US $ 3 billion in development aid to Afghanistan and remains committed to stay the course but the light at the end of the bloody Afghan tunnel is getting dimmer. One hopes that Afghanistan will not go down the path of Syria but the probability that this welcome Uzbek initiative will lead to that elusive consensus within Afghanistan and among its principal external interlocutors remains slim. The road ahead for Afghanistan’s reconstruction will be arduous and blood-soaked and Delhi must exhort the donor constituency to stay the course for the next decade and more.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal