The Afghan landscape is changing and India must recognise the need for a trilateral talk that includes Pakistan, and revisit its stand on talks with the Taliban.

Speaking to a gathering of intelligence officials in New Delhi recently, India's Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Satinder Lambah revealed a small but startling fact about his trip to the famous Bonn Conference in December 2001 to discuss a post-Taliban Afghanistan. The Indian delegation reached the German government's official Hotel Petersberg to find that India was of so little importance that there was not even any booking for it.

While India certainly got a foot in the door in the decade that followed — including designated hotel rooms during many conferences on the future of Afghanistan — it has so far been accorded only a ring-side seat. At the London conference in 2010, for example, the Indian delegation was blind-sided when the British hosts brought up talks with the Taliban leadership. At the next conference in Istanbul, India was purposely cut off altogether — as U.S. diplomatic cables leaked by the WikiLeaks reveal — at the behest of Pakistan.

Changed perspective

However, 2010 was a year of key developments in the great Afghan game, many of which swung in India's favour; events New Delhi would do well to recognise, and reconsider some of its stated positions on how peace can be built in this geographically and historically critical South Asian country.

Last year saw the highest number of casualties in Afghanistan in the decade since 9/11 — 709 coalition soldiers were killed, while civilian deaths rose 20 per cent past 2,500. The critical change compared to the previous years was that three-fourths of the civilian casualties were caused by Taliban strikes. Deaths in action by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan National Army (ANA) dropped from 30 per cent to 12 per cent.

The Taliban's terror offensive in the cities is seen as a desperate reaction to losses it has suffered on the frontlines — from Helmand to Kandahar — including three of its most senior Marja commanders in an encounter in Quetta this February. A suicide blast at a Jalalabad bank, an attack on spectators at a game of Buzkashi in Faryab and another on crowds in Kunduz are examples of attacks on civilians this year that killed more than 120 people.

What this proves is that sections of the Taliban are beginning to feel the pressure of the ISAF and the newly trained ANA and police forces. “The critical element,” says Antonio Giustozzi, author and editor of three books on the Taliban, “is to gauge the optimal time to talk to the Taliban, or at least one part of it. They must feel the heat to want to talk, but still have enough command and control of their men to effect a ceasefire.”

The talks proposed last year in London have now taken a new form. To begin with, the Hamid Karzai government seems to have given up on talking to the hardliners — Mullah Omar, the Haqqani group and others reportedly under ISI protection. During his visit to the U.K. this year — first to any western country since his stint at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre — the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Zaeff, went one step further, asserting that the militia group leaders now in Pakistan were unlikely to return to Afghanistan. A paper by two scholars close to Mr. Zaeff also makes the case that the Taliban's closeness to the al-Qaeda is at an ebb, with only an estimated 50-60 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan today, albeit many more have taken shelter just across the Durand Line. Finally, there are the growing differences between the Pakistan-controlled Taliban and the newer Afghan Taliban commanders. Many are pointing to the two unsuccessful assassination attempts on JuI leader Maulana Fazlur Rahman as indicators of deepening intra-jihadi schisms.

Talks, a reality

The rift between Pakistan and parts of the Afghan Taliban notwithstanding, India needs to recognise that talks with the militant outfit will happen, sooner or later. In fact, some leaders who are ready to give up the power of the bullet for the ballot are already being engaged by the U.S., the U.K. and the Afghan government. By giving up its blanket opposition to talks with the Taliban, India may be able to nudge a greater role for itself in who will ultimately be talked to.

Meanwhile, the role of the U.S. itself has changed in the past year. After much back and forth, Washington seems to have reconciled itself to an indefinite haul in Afghanistan, and is now contemplating military bases in the country. Its relationship with Islamabad has taken several hard blows — from the case of the U.S. bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad to Pakistani anger against U.S. drone attacks, which erupted with mobs torching dozens of NATO trucks and shutting down the Af-Pak border, and the Raymond Davis case. Pakistan's ties with Afghanistan, too, have fared badly in the past year; far from President Karzai's statement last March, likening the two to conjoined twins, Kabul is back to accusing its “twin” of fratricide.

In contrast, New Delhi, partly by design and partly by chance, has an easier relationship with both Kabul and Washington at present. An India-Pakistan-Afghanistan trialogue this year to try and dispel some of the suspicions Pakistan has over India's ambitions in Afghanistan may be the way forward. This is particularly important as the bulk of India's projects in Afghanistan are in the Pushtun areas, a fact which fuels Pakistan's concerns. It seems hard to conceive of moving forward on others without, in some part, seeking to assuage those concerns.

In any case, most Indian infrastructural projects like the Zaranj-Delaram Highway and the Parliament building will be completed by 2011-2012 and, so far, New Delhi has not committed itself to any similar large project in rebuilding Afghanistan for security and other reasons. Also, India is yet to explore ways of using the Pakistan-Afghanistan transit trade agreement signed in 2010 to its own advantage, as well as initiate projects in agricultural storage, climate change management and media exchanges, given Bollywood's large following in Afghanistan. The next big push may come from mining contracts, with about 15 Indian companies lining up to bid for iron ore exploration in Hajigak.

With its foot in the door at the United Nations Security Council this year and with ambitions of a place at the high table, for India, surely the first step to becoming a world power is to set its position at the regional high table. In Afghanistan, it is no longer enough to wait tentatively by the door as a friendly but unobtrusive neighbour but India must take a step inside and be counted as a family member.

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