Afghanistan: new entente in place?

Pushed by Pakistan-China initiatives, talks look likely between the Taliban and Afghanistan. This could block India’s economic interests in the region

Negotiations between the Afghan unity government and the Taliban appear likely, with the Pakistan military prodding the Taliban to agree to talks. This comes in the wake of unprecedented concessions by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to Pakistan. He has, over the last few months, acted against Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) militants operating from Afghan soil, provided Pakistan access to TTP prisoners, agreed to send army cadets to Pakistan for training, and engaged directly with Pakistan’s military. All these concessions have come at great political risk with some Afghan leaders expressing disappointment with the overtures.

This is not the first time that efforts have been made to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Under President Hamid Karzai, too, several efforts were made, but the Taliban refused to participate, claiming it would talk only to the Americans “who have occupied Afghanistan and are the real power.”

The relevant question to ask then is what differentiates the current efforts from previous ones? And what are the chances that these talks will even begin, leave alone succeed?

China’s initiative

One factor is China’s attitude. It is increasingly wary of terrorism entering into Xinjiang via Afghanistan and wants Pakistan to calm the borders. It is with this aim that China took a lead in the Heart of Asia conference, institutionalised the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral dialogue, and played host to a two-member delegation from the Taliban’s Qatar office that visited Beijing in November 2014. The Chinese government is also comfortable working with President Ghani.

Second, the Taliban position has shifted, a change evident after the U.S. helped establish a Taliban presence in Qatar in January 2012. The U.S. also gave in to some of the Taliban’s demands and the UN sanctions regime was recast. In return, the Taliban made some pronouncements, distancing itself from al-Qaeda, and indicated that it is open to a negotiated settlement.

Third, Pakistan’s stance has also changed. On February 19, Pakistani military officials revealed that the Taliban had signalled its readiness for talks. That this has Pakistan’s backing is underscored by the news that Akhtar Mansour, a Taliban hardliner, who enjoys the Inter Services Intelligence’s trust, will be involved in the peace talks. For Islamabad to allow Mansour to negotiate marks a departure from its earlier reluctance, given the fate of Talibanleader Mullah Baradar, who tried to negotiate with the Karzai government in early 2010 and was arrested. By the time they came close to dialogue in 2013, Baradar had been reduced to a near comatose state.Uncertain road

However, the road ahead is uncertain. A ceasefire will be the first major hurdle and, unless the Taliban can take all its factions on board, the conflicting demands could be challenging. To resolve this, it would need to take into confidence its field commanders and foot soldiers. A second challenge will be to work out a method to get past the remaining sanctions on some of its leading figures. A third would be winning acceptance for power-sharing. Combining the Taliban’s vision of a Sharia state with the existing constitution will be a gargantuan task. The eventual test would be to secure a signal from Taliban leader Mullah Omar. At what stage he will emerge, participate in a dialogue, and be part of a power-sharing arrangement are open questions. There is even speculation over whether he is, in fact, alive. The ISI has succeeded in keeping the Mullah Omar-led Quetta Shura on a tight leash, and some reports say Mullah Omar could be an ISI prisoner.

At the end of the day, successful negotiations are predicated on Pakistan being an impartial mediator. However, this is an uncertain premise given the distrust over Pakistan’s role in earlier talk attempts. There is also pessimism whether Pakistan will be able to develop a better relationship with the new unity government in Afghanistan, with distrust running deep between both nations.

Indian perspective

From an Indian perspective, Pakistan’s increasing role in Afghanistan is likely to impact India’s economic commitments in Afghanistan. Pakistan is likely to block progress on the Chabahar Port linking project in order to remain the sole gateway to Afghanistan. India’s plans of developing four iron-ore blocks and building a steel plant in Hajigak will also be threatened by Pakistan’s presence. India’s limited influence in Afghanistan’s political realm means that it needs to join hands with another major player in the region. With the Chinese backing Pakistan, India’s hopes lie with Iran. The ongoing P5+1/Iran talks and Iran’s integration with the world economy hold the key to an India-Iran joint effort in Afghanistan. If that does not happen, India’s options will be curtailed. India will be keeping a close eye on the fate of the dialogue between the Taliban and Mr. Ghani’s team, and Pakistan’s role therein.

(Anand Arni and Pranay Kotasthane work on Strategic Affairs at the Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru.)

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