Some pieces of news from India’s near abroad can be brushed aside. Some cannot. In the latter category are reports that Pakistan has been at the high table in Beijing last week with the US, China and Russia for consultations over the Afghanistan peace process. The four countries issued a joint statement on 12 July, urging the Taliban to agree on a ceasefire and begin talks with the elected government in Kabul to usher in an era of peace and stability in the war-ravaged country. In this effort, the troika of the US, China and Russia have “welcomed" the involvement of Pakistan, once the main sponsor of the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan with brute force for five years before the US invaded the landlocked country in 2001 to “smoke out" Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda chief and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, who was finally traced to a location not far from the Pakistani army’s headquarters and killed by US forces in 2011. That Islamabad is expected to “play an important role in facilitating peace in Afghanistan", as the quartet observed, is notable not just for its irony, but also for its short-sightedness. If Afghan interests are what this is about, New Delhi needs to have an equal voice at the very least. It would be in our own interest as well. After all, the evolving geopolitical situation in Afghanistan holds significant economic, security and strategic implications for India, which remains popular in Afghanistan for its stabilizing presence and reconstruction efforts there.
That the US wants a quick exit from Afghanistan has been clear ever since Donald Trump took office as president. In 2018, the Pentagon had said America’s war meant the country having to fork out $45 billion a year. When the US cut a desperate “agreement in principle" with the Taliban earlier this year, India was duly alarmed. Engaging the Taliban, to New Delhi’s mind, is a bad idea. The ragtag group is far from reformed and there is little evidence that an increase in its influence will not aid Pakistan’s search for “strategic depth" across the Durand Line. India’s argument that the Taliban are not elected and have no locus standi as representatives of the Afghan people appears to have gone unheeded. Worse, the White House’s hurry is such that the US wants peace talks with the Taliban concluded by 1 September.
What the US may have overlooked is the risk of Afghanistan losing its most important gain: its democracy. It is far from perfect, but is still the country’s only hope. If it falters, it would deal a cruel blow to the hopes and aspirations of Afghans, who have endured decades of unjust violence, and plunge their future into uncertainty again. And for its democracy to flourish, Indian influence needs to go up sharply. The Afghan presidential polls are due on 28 September and, if Kabul needs help to hold them on schedule, perhaps New Delhi could offer logistical and other support. On other attributes of a democratic nation-state, such as modern education and women’s rights, India clearly has a lot more to provide than the two other Asian countries in the quartet. Indeed, India has already played a key role in such domains there. For a sustainable future to be built on the progress made so far, a widely representative government must take shape in Kabul. A power vacuum that lets the Taliban take the country back to square one is a risk that’s best quelled by Indian involvement in peace talks. New Delhi has much at stake.