Afghan Peace Process: RSTV – India’s World

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RSTV India’s World – Afghan Peace Process:-Download PDF Here

Anchor: Aishwarya Kapoor

Guests: Vivek Katju, Former Ambassador, Afghanistan;  Tilak Devasher, Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat; Shakti Sinha, Strategic Affairs Expert

Larger Background:

  • This episode of India’s World will look at the efforts made to usher peace in Afghanistan. There have been signs that the logjam as far as peace talks with the Taliban are concerned, could be easing.
  • The Afghan government has named a council of senior political leaders who will appoint negotiators and create their mandate for talks and oversee their work. Now, the formation of this council comes after months of bitter disagreements over the next peace talk steps with the Taliban.
  • The council is led by President Ashraf Ghani and composed of both current and former senior government officials and leaders of political parties and opposition groups.
  • So far, negotiations have occurred only between the insurgents and American diplomats, without the Afghan government.
  • The Taliban have refused to meet directly with representatives of the Afghan government, calling it a puppet of the US.
  • The Afghan government has insisted on direct negotiations, criticizing any move by political groups to engage with the Taliban as giving the insurgents unwarranted legitimacy.
  • The council created a platform to bridge rifts that benefit the Taliban. Informal meeting with the Taliban in Qatar, seen as an icebreaker.
  • The meeting is set for mid-April, 2019 and expected to be attended by more than a hundred Afghans with an intention for trust-building measure.

Analysis by the Experts:

How do you look at this step towards achieving peace in Afghanistan?, i.e. the formation of the council headed by President Ashraf Ghani that is comprised of both the current and former senior government officials, leader of the other political parties and opposition groups as well. How important would this step be as far as the peace process in Afghanistan is concerned?

Vivek Katju, Former Ambassador, Afghanistan, weighed in with her arguments here.

This is a significant step. This is because intra-Afghan talks have to be held, including with the Taliban to resolve the issue of peace making in the country. However, this step is a good step but not a sufficient step. This is because the road to peace is going to be a very long and thorny road. As of now, the Taliban have shown no inclination that they are willing to sit down with the government or any body which is constituted by the government and controlled by it. They are first of all, wanting to have negotiations which of course, they are having, with the Americans. They want to decide the full contours of a peace deal, again with the Americans. Thereafter, I get the feeling that they want to discuss with other Afghan groups, but not groups that are controlled by the government. Thus, we will have to wait and watch as to what would be the exact nature of the Taliban’s response. Ashraf Ghani’s government has shown some responsibility, because of the way they have composed these groups, but we are not sure if the Taliban would even agree to this.

So far, the negotiations have happened only between the insurgents and of course, the American diplomats, without the Afghan government really taking a part in it.  Further, CEO Abdullah Abdullah had said that the Taliban is actually an obstacle in the path of the peace process. Do you think that the Taliban could actually get pressurized to come to the negotiating table?  

Shakti Sinha, Strategic Affairs Expert, weighed in here with his arguments.

Not yet. As a matter of fact, an Intra-Afghan dialogue is being convened in Qatar. Persons in the Afghan government can attend but as individuals only and not as individuals representing the government. As far as the Taliban are concerned, the government in Afghanistan is viewed as a puppet regime, and therefore does not exist.
The government and the other actors in the legal-political space must get their act together to confront the many challenges that Afghanistan faces. As of now, the Taliban is content just to be talking to the Americans. It is too early to know as to how things would pan out over the next few months.

How do you look at the recent developments- for example, the formation of this council which would have political leaders, the opposition members. How significant would this step going to be?   

Tilak Devasher, Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, weighed in with his arguments here.

I believe that this development is a significant step.

Setting up this consultative body is a very important step. The Afghan government is trying to reach out to the opposition and other people in Afghanistan to have a united front- this is because unless and until there is Afghan unity, they (the government) will not be able to negotiate with the Taliban, if it comes down to a negotiation. This is still a far way off.

Again with the next round of talks in Qatar, the Taliban is playing the same game. They are allowing individual Afghans to come. Now, one would have to see if individual Afghans and the Afghan opposition rise to the bait and go and attend the talks or would a united front be presented? That is the big question now.

However, the step taken by Ashraf Ghani is important. Now, one would have to wait and see as to how things develop, and how the Taliban and Pakistan would react to this.

Even if one assumes that there are Afghan government officials involved, there is a huge lack of trust between the Taliban and the Afghan government. This is because so far, the Afghan government has criticized any move by political groups to engage with the Taliban because, they feel that the “insurgents would be given unwarranted legitimacy”. Also, the Taliban have refused to meet directly with the representatives of the Afghan government, saying that it is a puppet of the United States. Thus, a lack of trust is clearly there. So, even if we assume that these two sides do come together, they do hold talks, do you think that they will be able to remove that trust deficit that exists between the two sides?  

Tilak Devasher, Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, weighed in with his arguments here.

More than a trust deficit, it is a question of ideological difference. The Taliban don’t accept the constitutionally elected government in Kabul to be a legitimate government. They think that it is a puppet government and  that they have nothing to do with the government. Thus, the question of trust is a minor issue. The first is the battle of principle. The principle of the Taliban is that they want the Americans to leave, and after they have left, they believe that they will be able to take care of the problem. Thus, I feel that negotiations are still quite far off. I don’t see that the Taliban at this stage would want to accept any person from the government as a legitimate representative of Kabul. The would like to talk to individual Afghans and create a divide between the Ghani government and the opposition and attempt at manipulating things.

What is going to be the role of America? So far, American has been dealing with the Taliban and the two sides have almost reached an agreement as far as the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is concerned. The US says that it has welcomed the formation of this council, but do you think that the US would like to cede all the negotiating power that it has been having with the Taliban?

Vivek Katju, Former Ambassador, Afghanistan, weighed in with her arguments here.

The Americans under Trump want to leave Afghanistan. For this purpose, they have eaten the humble pie. They have almost admitted a strategic defeat, certainly they have admitted to a strategic retreat. Further, they are now negotiating with the Taliban something that they had earlier said they would not do. They were hoping that the Taliban would negotiate with the Afghan government. They have given the Taliban complete legitimacy. Today, the Taliban are welcome almost all over the world; everyone is talking to them. Now, from the Ameircan viewpoint, the primary objective was to ensure that another Al-Qaeda base, or an ISIS base is not formed in Afghanistan. This is to ensure that American interests wouldn’t be hurt from Afghan territory. Let us also forget that the Americans have never had any problems with the Taliban per se.

Their problems arose because the Taliban arose giving shelter to the Al-Qaeda. In 1989, once the Soviets left Afghanistan, the Ameircan’s just left and there was absolute chaos in Afghanistan around 3 years after the Soviet withdrawal.

Najibullah Ahmadzai’s government had collapsed, then the Mujahideen came and after that came the Taliban. The American’s don’t want that situation to come again. However, they have conceded such space to the Taliban, and also militarily, they have not been able to defeat the Taliban and thereby they have suffered a strategic defeat- also because they haven’t been able to get into Pakistan where the terror sanctuaries are located, in spite of all the chest-thumping by Trump initially in August of 2017. Thus, today, the Americans are in a bit of a quandary. The Taliban are playing hardball. They are telling the Americans that they are the main people in Afghanistan and that the Kabul authorities are their (America’s) puppets. And that once the Americans leave, then it is for the Taliban to decide. This is the game that the Taliban are playing by inviting everyone in their individual or group capacities to come to Qatar. So, another chapter is being opened up now, and we would have to just wait and watch what happens now. My only fear is that many Afghan parties and individuals, will seriously bite at the Taliban bait because they seem to be the winning side. Also, in any situation like this the winning side creates a certain momentum.

The developments in Afghanistan do affect relations between America and Russia as well. With these developments panning out, how do you think that this would either change, alter or affect Russia, US relations?

Shakti Sinha, Strategic Affairs Expert, weighed in with his arguments here.  

As far as Russia and the US are concerned, at this moment, both of them are on the same plane. As a matter of fact, Russia opened up to the Taliban before the Americans did. And the Russians said that for legitimate security, reasons, they shall talk to the Taliban and had various meetings with them. Currently, the Americans are doing the same thing. American objectives are quite clear in that they (Afghanistan) should not pose the threat of being a sanctuary for anyone to attack them. This is something with which the Russians are perfectly fine with. From an Indian perspective, questions arise: What will happen to our neighbourhood? What will happen to us? This is because when the Ameircans have asked the Taliban to give an assurance, about not hosting groups to attack them, the Taliban have refused to name any group. They have given a general assurance. So, could it be possible that groups who are not hostile to America, but groups who are willing to work in India or in her neighbourhood, be there? These are some of the issues that are bound to come out as and when the discussions and negotiations between the Taliban and the  Americans move on to the next step. This is something that India has to obviously watch very carefully.

What role is Pakistan going to play in this peace process? We have recently seen  the US envoy travelling to Pakistan and speaking to the leadership there- and as a matter of fact, there are reports that the US envoy also met with the Pakistani Army Chief as well.

Tilak Devasher, Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, weighed in with his arguments here.

Pakistan can play a critical role, as they can act as spoilers. Pakistan can help dictate the pace at which any kind of negotiations are held, either with the US, or any kind of negotiations that are held with the Afghan groups. Obviously, the whole process is being calibrated by Pakistan. Thus, Pakistan will dictate the pace and the manner in which any kind of negotiations are held and will see what benefit it can derive for itself, for its larger game that it wants to play in the neighbourhood. India figures very prominently in that larger game that Pakistan is planning to hold. It will use Afghanistan as some sort of a strategic backup.

Pakistan’s links with the Taliban have been at the center of tension with the Ashraf Ghani government as well. Under these circumstances, what kind of a pivotal role is Pakistan playing in this case. What role can India possibly have?

Vivek Katju, Former Ambassador, Afghanistan, weighed in with her arguments here.

Pakistan has a very negative role. They are trying to determine as to how the situation really unfolds in Afghanistan and their first interest is naturally to safeguard and promote their own interests, which are not the interests of Afghanistan or the region. As far as I can see, the Pakistani’s have no interest in maintaining the integrity of the Kabul government (Ashraf Ghanis’ government).

The Pakistani’s are calling for an interim government at the moment. This would effectively mean going back to 2001 or early 2002. If all this transpires, then the political cohesion in Afghanistan, might break, and if that happens, then the Army itself might splinter. This has been the historical experience, and that would be bad for the region. As far as India is concerned, she should be realistic. India’s role on the ground is limited. India enjoys great popularity and that will continue. The vast sections of Afghan people want a good relationship with India. The dictates of geography suggest that any government that would come to power in Afghanistan would have good ties with India. Further, history bears that out. However, the interim period would be difficult for India. I for one have been advocating that we should see the writing on the wall, and that we should have contacts with the Taliban even while we maintain and strengthen ties with the Kabul government. I believe that these are not incompatible. This is the way the diplomatic game is played always. This is the way that we should play it to my mind.

The council that has been put forward may itself be very fragile. This is because we see that Mr. Ghani’s office still has a lot of  differences with the other political parties. For example, how seriously is the Afghan government really looking at the participation of women?  

Shakti Sinha, Strategic Affairs Expert, weighed in with his arguments here.  

The Afghan political system is a deeply fragmented one. Individuals have attended meetings with the Taliban in Moscow; they have contacted the Taliban separately as well. The role of women is a critical issue. In fact, a lot of the Afghan women had objected very strongly to the fact that they might lose all their rights. Even the Taliban have made some kind of sounds that they would defend the rights of women, within the overall Quranic system. This is neither here nor there.

There is a lot at stake in terms of how successful the council is going to be. Of course it is a hypothetical question, but what if it fails? What if it is not able to talk to the Taliban and negotiate with them? In one sense, it might damage people’s trust in the government as it might show that the government is weak and that it is marginalized.

Shakti Sinha, Strategic Affairs Expert, weighed in with his arguments here.  

There are various aspects to this. One is the governments credibility and the governments legitimacy. The Afghan governments legitimacy is very much there; but its credibility in so far as being able to provide security to the people is not there currently. So, there is no reason to be too worried now that the government would lose further credibility. What is more dangerous is if one moves a legal authority, and if it is not replaced with something that is equally legal in the eyes of the people, then only greater instability would be created, even if that authority has the powers. So, therefore whether this council does well or not isn’t really something to be worried about.

How much can the Taliban be trusted? We have been seeing that talks have been going on for very long and despite those talks, we see that the Taliban are staging attacks almost every day. They are inflicting staggering casualties. They are also holding sway over almost half of the area in the country. How much can we actually trust them even if the peace process actually goes ahead?

Tilak Devasher, Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, weighed in with his arguments here.

The fact of the matter is that there has been no change in the Taliban ideology at all. They continue to maintain what they maintained in the 1990’s. They don’t accept the constitution. They don’t accept democracy. They don’t accept elections. Thus, there is no change in the Taliban ideology. As a matter of fact, even during the talks with the U.S., all that they were saying was that the American foreign troops should leave Afghanistan, and that they would take care of the rest. Thus, the Taliban cannot be trusted. According to me, this whole peace process itself, is actually a myth. It is basically the U.S. who is wanting to go out and is creating this myth of a peace process. Actually, it is an exit process. It is an exit strategy for the US to move out of Afghanistan and cut their losses and leave. What they realize is that they can’t leave like they did in the early 1990’s. Thus, it is a bit of a quandary; it is a difficult situation.

One cannot trust the Taliban, and nor can one trust Pakistan. It is difficult to imagine Pakistan facilitating peace in Afghanistan that is not on their terms.

Vivek Katju, Former Ambassador, Afghanistan, also weighed in with her arguments here.

I believe that the Afghan’s have a tradition of ultimately functioning independently. This is my experience. Let’s face it. The Taliban have not been defeated. Militarily, they have survived everything that the American’s could throw at them. This is because, the American’s refused to cross the Durand Line and clean up the mess in Pakistan. As far as India is concerned, she has to be very watchful. It is in this situtaiton that our diplomacy needs certain deftness and nimbleness and this means establishing contacts with all sides, including the Taliban.   

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RSTV India’s World – Afghan Peace Process:-Download PDF Here

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