India will be part of the six-nation talk on Afghanistan to be held in Moscow on Wednesday. The other participants will be Russia, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Iran. This meeting will follow the 27 December meeting in Moscow which was attended (apart from the host Russia) by China and Pakistan. Notably, no representative of the Afghan government was invited then to deliberate on the future of Afghanistan.
The outcome of that meeting upset both India and Afghanistan as the three participants seemed to legitimise the role of Taliban under the cover of fighting the bigger threat of Islamic State. This was a result of some very clever manoeuvring by the Pakistani army generals who were worried about India’s growing role in Afghanistan after the formation of the US-India-Afghanistan trilateral. By projecting Islamic State to be a bigger threat than the Taliban, Pakistan has been able to convince Russia and China of the need to accommodate Taliban in the fight against the Islamic State. Involved in Syria on the side of Bashar al-Assad regime where a number of Russian origin fighters have pledged their loyalty to the Islamic State, Moscow proved to be an easy convert.
Though Iran was not a part of the 27 December meeting and it has its own set of problems with the Sunni Taliban, it has also shown flexibility to achieve the greater aim of ousting American presence and influence from the region. An interesting article by Andrew Korybko of the Sputnik News on the website of Katehon think tank argues that India will be the biggest obstacle to the peace process in Afghanistan.
Compared to Iran, which is flexible, and the Donald Trump administration, which can be sold a face-saving exit from Afghanistan, India has an “unwavering and obstinate stance that all Taliban are ‘terrorists’”.
The upcoming meeting in Moscow, in Korybko’s view, “is likely intended as a ‘polite/diplomatic’ introduction to India about the changing reality in Afghanistan (out of respect to the enduring Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership) and a way to formally get Iran on board with this initiative”. But one of the more interesting things Korybko does is to compare Russia’s role in Afghanistan to the Astana process for Syria involving Russia, Iran and Turkey.
The case that things are not going in India’s favour in Afghanistan is undeniable. An editorial in this newspaper laid out the reasoning eloquently and also the need for New Delhi to “re-establish its contacts with the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan.” There are five more points that can be made in light of Korybko’s arguments.
One, the current situation in Afghanistan is a result of, among other things, the hasty US withdrawal—a decision taken by the Barack Obama administration. In this regard, the comparison with Syria is apt. Obama’s halfway commitment for the opposition forces in Syria and the governing regime in Afghanistan left a vacuum which was skillfully exploited by Kabul.
Two, Trump’s rhetoric on Iran is not helpful to India’s role in Afghanistan. Even if Moscow has bought into the theories sold by the Pakistani generals, Iran’s commitment to accommodate Taliban is not foolproof. But Trump’s continued lashing of the Iran nuclear deal (signed during Obama’s tenure) and inclusion of Iran in the seven Muslim majority nations selected for travel ban into the US has strengthened anti-American hardliners inside Tehran. If Trump had recognized the usefulness of the nuclear deal, India, Iran and the US could have provided robust firewall to the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul.
But this does not mean that all is won for the Moscow-led coalition. Because, and this is the third point, Russia does not enjoy the same legitimacy in Afghanistan as it does in Syria.
To start with, unlike the Astana process where Moscow invited both the Assad regime and the representatives of the Syrian rebels, the 27 December meeting began on a skewed note—legitimizing Taliban without consulting the Ghani government which itself has participated in talks with the Taliban previously under the supervision of both the US and China. And, just like the US is reviled in the Middle East for its interventions, the Soviet Union invasion of 1979 hasn’t been completely forgotten in Afghanistan.
Four, the peace process led by Moscow relies on many flawed assumptions. The biggest of them is that the Islamic State in Afghanistan, or Wilayat Khorasan, is a bigger threat than the Taliban. But there are others too. As is clear from Korybko’s article, the whole exercise is dependent on the ability to distinguish good Taliban from the bad. By bad Taliban, Korybko does not mean the Tehrik-i-Taliban as is understood in Pakistan from the phrase. He means the people who have joined the Islamic State. With hardly any Arab face in Wilayat Khorasan, such an exercise of separating the good from the bad will be Sisyphean in character.
The last point is the biggest reason why the Moscow-led peace process will fail miserably in buying peace. The whole peace process doesn’t recognize the biggest problem: Pakistan. The reason the US has not been able to deliver peace in Afghanistan has been the same. Washington relied on Pakistan to extinguish the terrorists on which Rawalpindi depended for maintaining influence in their “strategic backyard”. Moscow may want to displace American role from the region but it should also learn from America’s experience to achieve that.
But who wants peace anyway? The governments in Kabul and New Delhi probably. But the roles of both are shrinking.