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On shifting sand

US peace deal with the Taliban is the first step in a long, complicated process with many related state actors and additional stipulations

On shifting sand

Two decades after its invasion of Afghanistan, the United States has come to the inevitable conclusion that it must end its military intervention there. And, thus, it finally negotiated and reached a deal with the Taliban, an organisation that it long considered terrorist fundamentalist killers "swathed in American blood".

The two sides signed the deal for "bringing peace to Afghanistan" in Doha (Qatar) last Saturday after months of difficult negotiations in which the key stakeholder, the Afghan government, was not involved. The deal is seen as a precursor to peace in the war-torn country.

India, which has been contributing in a big way in the reconstruction and development of post-Taliban Afghanistan, in a sign of its willingness to engage with the Taliban, asked its ambassador in Doha to attend the signing ceremony.

When the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, India did not recognise it diplomatically.

Only once India negotiated with the Taliban during the IC-814 hijacking of an Indian Airline passenger plane to Kabul in 1999. India had to release some terrorists, including Maulana Masood Azhar, in exchange for the freedom of passengers onboard the aircraft. The Pakistan-based founder of Jash-e-Mohammed is responsible for attacks on Parliament (2001), in Pathankot (2016) and in Pulwama (2019).

In 2018 two former Indian diplomats—Amar Sinha and T C A Raghvan — both associated with government-run think tanks participated in Moscow-led talks with the Taliban as 'observers'.

Faced with the new reality, India's policy towards Afghanistan may have to be recalibrated. The diplomatic mandarins in New Delhi are apprehensive of the growing influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which they say, would not be good in India's interests. India will have to work with all political, state and non-state players to secure its interests.

The deal may also strengthen Pakistan, a long time benefactor of the Taliban. In the changed scenario, India might have to formally engage with the Taliban.

The political head of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Bardar, who signed the deal with the US, predictably, did not name India among the countries which supported the peace process but specially thanked Pakistan for the "support, work and assistance". Among the countries named by him were China, Uzbekistan, Iran, Russia, Indonesia and Norway.

It is almost certain that the Taliban would be part of Afghanistan's future. The thing to be watched is if the current Taliban is anything like the old one and works in concert with Pakistan to support anti-India terror groups.

Taking serious note of the development, India's foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla flew to Kabul just a day before the signing of the deal apparently to get a sense of the post-deal scenario, how empowered would be the Ghani government, which just got re-elected, after the rise of the Taliban as well as Pakistan's influence in the country.

He conveyed India's support to the Afghan leadership, the government and the people of Afghanistan in their "efforts to bring peace and stability through an inclusive and Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan–controlled efforts."

The Afghan development also figured in the talks Prime Minister Narendra Modi had with the visiting US President Donald Trump just days before the signing of the deal.

A joint statement issued after their talks spoke about the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process as emphasised by India. India has developed a close relationship with Ghani under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and both have been on the same side as far as Pakistan-sponsored terrorism is concerned.

Shringla told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that India stands with Afghanistan for "strengthening national unity, territorial integrity, democracy, plurality and prosperity" in the country and bringing an "end to externally sponsored terrorism", a reference to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan not only affects Indian policy on Afghan but also changes the regional balance of power in fundamental ways. As part of the deal, the US would withdraw all its troops numbering about 14,000 from Afghanistan in 14 months. The Taliban would not allow any of its member, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan's soil to carry out terror attacks.

It is also worth noting that the deal is between the US and the Taliban and not the Afghan government. It is complicated but an essential path forward. It has already hit its first snag when the Afghan president said on Sunday that he would not free thousands of Taliban prisoners.

In an apparent retaliation the following day the Taliban ordered its fighters to resume operations against Afghan forces even as a deadly blast took place at a football ground in Khost in eastern Afghanistan, shattering the partial truce between the US, the insurgents and the Afghan forces.

The deal envisions the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government ahead of the talks in Oslo. The actions by both sides have put a question mark on the possibility of Afghanistan witnessing a truce after years of turmoil.

In a situation like this, there cannot be a smooth sailing of any plan. This won't be the last hurdle either. Both sides have to go the extra mile to ensure the success of the deal. It is important that the Taliban present their case before the people of Afghanistan and the government, who continue to see the deal, with good reason, as something that has more to do with the US domestic policies in an election year than with peace in Afghanistan.

The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as West Asia correspondent for PTI. Views expressed are strictly personal

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