16 August 2019

India, Pakistan, Afghanistan: The new great game

by Nirupama Subramanian

It is not often that Zalmay Khalilzad flies into Delhi. The sharp-suited, self-assured Afghan-American diplomat has been on a year-long overdrive to stitch up an agreement with the Taliban to ensure US President Donald Trump’s promised withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan comes true. It is a process in which Pakistan has played a key role, by bringing the Taliban to the table. India, on the other hand, has no role at all. And with India’s friends in Afghanistan all sceptical or downright dismissive of the process, Khalilzad has kept his distance.

When he arrived in the capital on August 6, it was the day after the Narendra Modi-led government had executed a series of constitutional moves in Jammu & Kashmir in keeping with its ideological positions — revoking the state’s special status, making redundant Article 370, plus bifurcating J&K into two Union Territories. The ripples from the move had been felt as far as Doha in Qatar, where Khalilzad was closeted with Taliban leaders for an all-important eighth round of talks, with both sides said to be on the cusp of announcing a deal.

The last thing that the US Special Representative on Afghanistan Reconciliation, or his boss Trump would want at this delicate point, when a deal with the Taliban seems within reach, is for Pakistan, the main force behind the Taliban participation, to get distracted over Kashmir.
In this Feb. 8, 2019, file photo, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in Washington. (AP)

Khalizad met External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, and both put out boilerplate tweets acknowledging that they caught up with each other and with the developments on the Afghan process. But it is certain they discussed Kashmir, and Khalilzad was told it is an “internal” issue for India.
Adapting to the changing regional dynamics

The Narendra Modi government’s sweeping constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir have come against the backdrop of changing regional dynamics. The American withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan over the next year is expected to leave its impact, especially as it is likely to put the Taliban in the driving seat in Kabul, and its mentor Pakistan in a position of influence. This may resonate in the Valley in the same way as the 1989 Soviet pullout fuelled the 1990s militancy.

The special envoy had visited Islamabad the previous week, at the same time that India was signalling loudly on Kashmir by abruptly cancelling the Amarnath Yatra, evacuating pilgrims, asking all other visitors to leave the Valley at short notice, at the time citing a terrorist threat from Pakistan, but as it turned out, in preparation for the big changes.

Useful discussions with US Special Representative @US4AfghanPeace Zalmay Khalilzad. Provided a comprehensive update on the situation in Afghanistan. Shared views on how we could work together effectively. pic.twitter.com/f5alfdB5cj

— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) August 6, 2019

Pakistani media reported then that foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had conveyed to Khalilzad that any “major development” in Kashmir could affect the Afghan process, and that India was trying “undermine” it, a charge he repeated after Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s announcements on Kashmir in Parliament.

It is not clear how Khalilzad assessed the developments in Kashmir. But he knows who he can put pressure on, and who not, because Pakistan pedalled back and quickly assured its continued co-operation for the Afghan process even as it continued efforts to internationalise what India has done. Neither the Pakistan Army nor the Imran Khan government can afford to throw away the American gratitude that its role in the process has got it.Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (third from left) along with other Taliban leaders arrives for talks in Moscow, Russia . (AP)

Days later, the Taliban too put out a statement that expressed “sadness” at the “hardships” caused to the Muslims in Kashmir and invited international attention to the matter by members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the UN, but unusually, seemed to rap Pakistan on the knuckles for linking Kashmir and Afghanistan. Welcome to the latest edition of the Great Game.

For centuries, Afghanistan, located at the crossroads of south and central Asia, has been at the centre of struggles between big powers for strategic dominance. It has also been the graveyard of great powers. Thirty years after the Soviets withdrew, fatigued and defeated by shoulder-missile-holding mujahideen trained by Pakistan, whose Army made millions in finances from America, the country is about to witness another withdrawal, this time by the US, once again in virtual admission of defeat, whatever window-dressing Khalilzad might want to give it to give out the impression that this is not surrender or a disorderly pullout like the Soviet one, but an agreement.

Khalilzad served as the US Ambassador to Kabul between 2003-2005, before going on to even more high-profile assignments in Iraq and at the UN. The 68-year-old US diplomat is once said to have nursed high political ambitions in the country of his birth, and Afghan leaders remain suspicious of his alleged personal agenda. His mission now — to close a deal with the Taliban — has to choreographed to a tight deadline to coincide with President Trump’s second-term bid in the 2020 US presidential elections. An India-based US diplomat India described Khalilzad as “a force of nature”.

The endgame this time has drawn in Russia and China, each with big stakes in Afghanistan, in the potential fallout and in the strategic opportunities that the American withdrawal opens up. Iran’s problematic relations with the US has driven its own discreet engagement with the process. While each country in the region views Afghanistan as a strategic piece of real estate, what of the Afghans who stood against the Taliban all these years, invested in democracy, elections and a Constitution?

The Obama administration was also desperate to engage with the Taliban when it became clear that the war could not be won but it drew the line at negotiating with the Taliban without the Afghan government represented at the table. Trump, however, has no such compunctions.

Khalilzad has cut out the Ashraf Ghani government altogether in deference to Taliban wishes. The main deal, which many say has already been agreed upon, is a timetable for US troop withdrawal, in return for a commitment from the Taliban that it will not shelter Al Qaeda or ISIS in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad has held the details of his discussions close to his chest, communicating almost entirely through Twitter, his spare tweets providing fewer answers than the questions they raise. In one such tweet earlier this year, he said that without commitments from the Taliban to talk with the Afghan government and to a ceasefire, there would be no deal. This would give the American withdrawal even the aura of a peace agreement, instead of the stigma of a scramble to get out, as in Vietnam. But with the passage of months, it seems that US will leave the details of the ceasefire and any power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and the Afghan government and others to the “intra-Afghan talks”.

Also up in the air is the September 28 Afghan presidential election. Will it be held at all, Afghans wonder. Speculation is rife that instead, there could be an “interim government” in which the Taliban will share power with other Afghan groups. Afghans who have built the process say elections must take place. But the stronger view is that with previous Afghan polls and their results proving to be deeply fractious and contested, holding them could end up complicating the intra-Afghan talks and may even hand the Taliban a moral victory.

Amrullah Saleh is among those who believes elections must be held. Saleh, the former head of the Afghan intelligence agency NDS, and fiercely outspoken against Pakistan and the Taliban, is contesting the September 28 elections as a vice-presidential candidate and President Ghani’s running mate.

On July 28, Saleh had just returned to his fortified office after kicking off his campaign with Ghani with a rally in Kabul, when a huge explosion outside, caused by a car bomb, killed people inside and outside. Seconds later, four suicide bombers entered the building along with gunmen, looking for Saleh.

In a scene out of the movies, the 46-year-old who knows he is a marked man, ran up a flight of stairs from his fourth-floor room, and barricaded himself on a terrace with a heavy door constructed for just such an eventuality. From there, he held off his Taliban attackers for a full 55 minutes before dramatically escaping to the next building with the help of a ladder his bodyguards had thrown across. The attack killed 30 people, among them relatives of Saleh, and wounded 50 others. Saleh was lucky to get away with minor injuries.

The deadly attack on Saleh was not the first episode of violence after the US opened talks with the Taliban late last year, nor was it the last. On August 7, in the midst of the eighth round of talks in Doha that Khalilzad has announced may yield the deal, a Taliban truck bomb went off in Kabul killing 14 people and leaving dozens of others with injuries.

The violence has left a sense of foreboding and deja vu. There may be an agreement, but no one believes that peace is round the corner.

Is Kashmir part of the new great game? Amid all this, Delhi’s nightmare scenario is that once Trump gets his deal and withdraws troops from Afghanistan, the ISI will send its out-of-work jihadist proxies into the Valley as it did in the 1990s, after the first Afghan war ended in 1989 with the Soviet withdrawal.

While the Modi government explained its decisions on J&K as driven by desire to deliver economic development to the state, some security officials describe the moves as an urgent necessity due to the imminent American withdrawal and a deal that will likely put Taliban, and thus Pakistan, in a pole position in Afghanistan, and open new opportunities for cross-border terrorism.

Moreover, the situation in the Valley could have just got more complicated by Delhi’s newly made decisions, that may give the people’s anger and alienation a fresh lease of life. Radicalism in the Valley is already entrenched, and is looking for new inspiration, and the ascendance of anti-India forces in the region, many fear, may give fresh impetus to those in Kashmir wanting to fight it out.

Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, is among those who believes that the government’s move in Kashmir had no external dimensions and was purely a political decision, which could have adverse consequences. “This change has provoked a predictable response from Pakistan. It should come as no surprise if there is an uptick in cross border violence,” Saran said.

If there is a Taliban revival, “whether it is a Taliban government or as an influential part of the dispensation in Kabul, there is every likelihood of Pakistan using a more congenial atmosphere to put a little more distance between itself and cross border terrorism. We have seen this before, and it could well happen again”, said Saran.

When President Trump thanked Pakistan PM Imran Khan for his help with the Afghan process, he was actually thanking the Pakistan Army, which controls large sections of the Taliban. The ISI not only brought the Taliban to the table for talks with the US, it also released Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Afghan Taliban and number 2 to Mullah Omar whom it had kept incarcerated since 2010 for trying to reach out to then president Hamid Karzai. Baradar is now the lead negotiator for his side, travelling across the globe, rubbing shoulders with heads of state as he briefs them about the Afghan process.

India, which leveraged the US presence in Afghanistan over two decades to rebuild its good relations after the hiatus during the Taliban regime, thus keeping the pressure on Pakistan, has felt entirely left out. In the words of a former Indian diplomat familiar with the talks, India is “paralysed” by its own friendships in Afghanistan, across all non-Taliban groups, and has not reached out to Taliban, at least not publicly or officially.

The memory of the 1999 IC 814 hijacking to Kandahar and the role the Taliban played in helping the hijackers push India to surrender to their demands, is still fresh among those who were involved in the negotiations then.

But security officials and diplomats who are familiar with Afghanistan are clear that it is not the Taliban who pose the real problem for India. Some say India should even explore an engagement with the Pashtun militants, without necessarily endorsing them. They believe it will be Pakistan and its actions in Afghanistan that will continue to represent the real danger

“The Taliban are very Afghan-centric. They have no interest in Kashmir,” said one former diplomat. “It is unlikely that the Taliban will send fighters into Kashmir.” Even in the 1990s, less than 2,000 Afghan fighters were involved in militancy in Kashmir, according to officials.

The threat is from the Pakistani groups, officials say, and the situation in the Valley could turn out to be low-hanging fruit for them. At the moment, Indian security officials speak of “hundreds” of Lashkar-e-Toiba cadres fighting in Afghanistan, giving more teeth to the Taliban in its battle to take as much control of territory before any deal with the US. Afghan officials too speak of the presence of Jaish-e-Mohammed cadres in Afghanistan.

“This is the real danger, that the Lashkar and the Jaish will be rerouted through Afghanistan to give Pakistan more deniability,” said an official, not ruling out efforts to take the fight beyond Kashmir, to other parts of India.

In addition, said one former official who has served in Afghanistan, there is reason to believe that the Islamic State of Khorasan is part Tehreek-e-Taliban, part Lashkar-e-Toiba. The conclusion being drawn in Delhi is this: facing an increasingly tight corner with the Financial Action Task Force on its failure to crack down on terrorism, Pakistan has pushed Lashkar cadres into Afghanistan, rebranded them as ISIS, as one way of putting daylight between itself and the group, and to increase deniability for any of its future acts of terrorism.

Afghans are deeply suspicious of Pakistan. They believe that these fighters will remain in Afghanistan as an insurance policy against the Taliban growing independent-minded. In addition, there are concerns that not all Taliban may agree with the agreement reached by the leadership and may plunge the country back into instability and chaos. And even those Taliban who accept the deal now may not abide by the rules of the game.

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