Should we, India and the international community, engage the Taliban? Should we encourage a peace process leading to possible reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban, even though the latter have correctly been accused of killing countless innocent Afghans?
Yes the Taliban have killed many innocents and continue to; yes they are too close to Pakistan to the understandable discomfort of New Delhi; and yes, there is no complete guarantee that they have changed their cruel and inhuman ways. And yet, should we not talk to the Taliban to try and bring them into the political mainstream in Afghanistan? I think we should. Much of the logic behind this argument comes from the reality that there is no way out of the situation that there is in Afghanistan other than talking to the Taliban – so consider it an argument from necessity.
Taliban would be back to prominence in Afghanistan in the years ahead, by shedding innocent blood or by negotiating its way – I have no doubts about that. My only worry is whether the Ashraf Ghani government and the others involved in the peace process in the war-torn country see merit in doggedly wooing the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table. Afghanistan is key to the region's stability, not only because it has traditionally been the territory where many great strategic games have been staged by those engaged in the region. But more importantly, today, given the rise of the Daesh and the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, we have a pressing need to stabalise Afghanistan. Taliban seems to be keen on negotiations, and that to me good news. If the talks do not take place soon, strategies and political calculations could change and Afghanistan could well be back to a messier situation.
Conflicts have a tendency to persist and then go on to become intractable if they are not addressed and resolved at the opportune moments as they present themselves. For one, we need to be able to recognize those opportune moments as they present themselves. Secondly, we need to have the political courage to make use of those moments to chart a route to a peaceful future.
So is this an opportune moment to begin serious negotiations with the Taliban? I believe so, for a number of reasons. One, there is soon going to be a power vacuum in Afghanistan due to the ongoing withdrawal of the NATO/US forces; two, the rise of ISIS is a major development that threatens everyone in the region and even the Taliban recognizes the threat posed by ISIS; and thirdly, the regional powers – Pakistan, China – and the US are still keen on negotiating a deal with the Taliban.
But are the Taliban any different from Daesh? I think they are radically different for two reasons: one, unlike Daesh, Taliban are willing to negotiate and agree to a power sharing formula; and secondly, Taliban, unlike Daesh, is not a apocalyptic organization. Taliban believe in state power and the utility of politics in achieving state power.
India needs to go beyond bilateralism with Kabul
New Delhi has traditionally played a positive role in Afghanistan by staying away from involving itself military in the so-called 'graveyard of empires' and unwilling to project force into the Afghan geopolitical landscape. It has so far wisely limited its Afghan involvement to welfare activities. Even after the US withdrawal, there is unlikely to be any major change in this strategy. However, in the larger scheme of things, it may be a good idea for India to be part of the reconciliation process in Kabul, and for that it is important that India looks beyond the purely bilateral, non-military engagement with Afghanistan. India should proactively discuss Afghan peace process with the Americans and the Chinese and if possible with the Pakistanis. And if possible, become an active partner in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) process initiated by Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States. I agree that projecting military force into Afghanistan would be a bad idea in the longer run, but actively shaping the reconciliation process in that country is important for India's regional strategy.
Look beyond Kabul
Moreover, New Delhi also needs to look beyond Kabul in engaging Afghanistan. While the Ghani-Abdullah government is the legitimate regime in Afghanistan, the reality is that it does not have effective control in all parts of the country. A number of actors including the Taliban have a say in the future of the country. Given this reality, New Delhi should rethink its unifocal Afghan strategy and look at the possibility of engaging other actors, even if quietly, including the Taliban. Such an engagement need not be to use the Taliban against anyone or to bring harm to any neighbor, but merely to engage with a powerful and influential actor in Afghanistan, and to encourage the reconciliation process there.
Sure, we remember the IC-814 hijack and the concerns in New Delhi about how the Afghan soil was used by interested parties to sponsor terror against India. But I have reason to believe that Taliban would see merit in rethinking its India policy. If the Taliban's recent statements about 'foreign intervention in Afghanistan' are anything to go by, we must engage the Taliban to see how serious they are about following a peaceful strategy towards India.