In Afghanistan, India must embrace the role of peacemaker
The chances of a successful outcome to a peacemaking endgame are uncertain. Nevertheless, for India, turning away from Afghanistan is not an option
Some say, it is a place where conflict is endemic and peace will remain elusive. Others say, these are times of great power rivalry, and hence, the prospects of those engaged in the new great game cooperating are dim. Yet, peacemaking is in the air in the heart of Asia. In other words, there is a surge of diplomacy, to address the dilemmas that Afghanistan is confronting.
The United States (US) secretary of state Anthony Blinken’s missive to Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani laid out the Joe Biden administration’s wish-list for an accelerated peace process. It set off a rush for peace and reconciliation. In early March, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, launched a diplomatic offensive. He has engaged interlocutors in Kabul, Islamabad, Doha and Moscow in a renewed bid to end the US’s longest war. On March 17, United Nations (UN) secretary-general Antonio Guterres appointed Jean Arnault from France as his personal envoy on Afghanistan and regional issues. On March 18, the first meeting in 2021 of the extended troika of Russia, the US, China and Pakistan along with Afghan government and Taliban representatives was hosted in Moscow and endorsed the call that the Taliban not pursue its spring offensive.
On March 20, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin visited Kabul to, “listen and learn”. On March 23, Blinken shared Washington’s “initial thinking” about Afghanistan with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in Brussels. On March 30, the ministerial meeting of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process was convened in Dushanbe, bringing together 15 participating countries from the region, 17 supporting countries from beyond the region, and 12 regional and international organisations. More diplomacy is in store — including an intra-Afghan meeting in Turkey.
This frenetic activity is fanned by the timeline agreed to by the Donald Trump administration in Doha on February 29, 2020, for the withdrawal “from Afghanistan of all military forces of the United States, its allies, and coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel within fourteen months.” Biden has acknowledged that it would be “hard” to meet the May 1 deadline, but when asked if US troops will be in Afghanistan next year, he clarified, “I can’t picture that being the case.”
Notwithstanding the Taliban’s inability to meet key commitments made by them in the Doha Agreement — reducing violence, severing links with al-Qaeda and engaging in meaningful intra-Afghan negotiations — the US has proposed an ambitious endgame template. This includes a 90-day reduction in violence to create an environment conducive to reaching a negotiated political settlement; the establishment of an inclusive interim Afghan government with the Taliban for a transitional period, in exchange for a cease-fire; new institutional arrangements to be worked out with the present constitution serving as an initial basis for intra-Afghan negotiations.
The hectic efforts to not leave behind a wreckage after years of global investment in Afghanistan’s stability are understandable. India, too, has invested much in terms of peace-building in the post-2001 phase. While, previously, it has been part of large groups, for the first time, it has been invited to join a select group of six countries in peacemaking efforts. Ministers from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India along with the US — states that have the capacity to play important roles in Afghanistan — will meet on a UN platform. This concerted approach to peacemaking in Afghanistan is similar to the P5+1 format for Iran and six-party talks for North Korea.
In the classical peace continuum, spreading across the spectrum of activities from preventive diplomacy to peacemaking and from peacekeeping to peace-building, India has tended to be risk-averse and keep away from peacemaking roles in internal conflicts following its experience in Sri Lanka. Peacemaking, even of the collective variety, is never easy. It requires weighing in on difficult trade-offs relating to contentious issues among parties to the conflict. It can lead to deeper involvement in issues that India prefers not to get involved in.
Also it, willy-nilly, means engaging all key players. In this case, it will inevitably mean the Taliban also, something that India has steered away from, thus far. Successful peacemaking requires substantive engagement. India will have to reconcile to the new realities of such responsibilities. This does not mean jettisoning interests, friends or the values that India has stood for in Afghanistan. It, however, means that rather than only voicing support, Indian diplomacy needs to be nimble in forming partnerships on specific issues to support the Afghan people with those having similar interests. More of quiet diplomacy and less of public diplomacy.
Obviously, there are risks. The rush to peace can stoke concerns and result in responses similar to when there is a rush to war. Also, the chances of a successful outcome to a peacemaking endgame involving so many moving pieces are uncertain. Nevertheless, for India, turning away from Afghanistan is not an option. The alternative to trudging along the tortuous peacemaking road, in the company of fellow travellers and adversaries, is to inertly accept the subversion of Afghanistan, with all its consequences experienced in the 1990s.
As diplomats jocularly put it, “If you are not on the table, you are on the menu”. It is time for India to earnestly move in concert to support peacemaking in Afghanistan. Not for no reason is it said: “Blessed are the peacemakers”.
Syed Akbaruddin is a retired diplomat who served as India’s permanent representative to the United Nations
The views expressed are personal