It is a wary India that has been watching the presidential elections in Kabul and the interim results which would be announced on October 19. Uncomfortable with the prospect of US troops leaving Afghanistan and the Taliban or its variant taking over Kabul, as is being brokered by US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad, India fears not just a rise in terrorism in the region, but also the economic and military empowerment of Pakistan. That would be bad news for New Delhi.
Expectedly, the Indians were not unhappy when US President Donald Trump called off the deal that he was to sign with the dark-robed Taliban leadership at his countryside retreat at Camp David. Trump’s excuse was that the Taliban had not kept their part of the deal and that it had been attacking US interests, including his soldiers stationed in the conflict zone. The killing of a US soldier in Kabul was presented as a precipitating reason for declaring the deal with Taliban as “dead”, but the truth, as it emerged, was that the talks between the two sides did not really cease.
Expectedly, after the elections in Kabul got over, Khalizad reintroduced US in the tenuous equation to tilt the balance in the presidential stakes in the event of a candidate not getting the requisite number of votes. This election witnessed a low voter turnout – less than one-third of the total voters cast their franchise. President Ashraf Ghani, not very high in the opinion polls, is seeking re-election. Like the 2014 polls, he is against his CEO, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who started off as a non-starter, but seems to have picked up steam closer to the date of polling. Dr Abdullah is of mixed parentage and has managed to attract voters from minority groups like the Tajiks and Hazaras. He has already anticipated the results and announced that he is winning the elections, much to the annoyance of the Independent Election Commission (IEC).
Expectedly, the Indians were not unhappy when US President Donald Trump called off the deal that he was to sign with the dark robed Taliban leadership at his countryside retreat at Camp David.
The dominant view in Kabul and elsewhere is that the US will decide who comes to power in Afghanistan. And their decision would be dependent on which candidate agrees with their theory of change.
Trump made an electoral promise that he would bring back the troops from the foreign land as they were not fighting a war in which his country was involved. In pursuance of this objective, Khalilzad was sent to engage with all the stakeholders, including the neighbouring countries. Khalilzad took cognizance of the Russian view that an indigenous resistance movement – the Taliban — was most qualified to fight the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Hence the need to engage with them. The Islamic State was spreading in Afghanistan and was coming in conflict with the Afghan National Army and Taliban, which meant that they had a common enemy.
In Afghanistan, there are too many moving pieces that need to be stabilised and maneuvered to bring peace in the land-locked country. The biggest challenge was not just Afghan temperament, but also the attitude of neighbouring Pakistan that wants to decide who rules Kabul. Since its defeat in the 1971 war with India, the generals of Rawalpindi have followed the concept of ‘strategic depth’ to seek control of Afghan affairs. In very plain terms, strategic depth means freedom for the Pakistani leadership to move its assets to Afghanistan if India pushes it very hard.
Afghan leaders are resentful of the importance that is being given to a group that holds just 11 per cent of the land mass and does not represent the will of the people.
Fearing encirclement, Pakistan has been warily watching the close ties between India and Afghanistan. Training of Afghan army officers or supply of army helicopters by India ritually feeds Islamabad’s fears and suspicions. If the Taliban return to power, observers believe that this would be a win-win scenario for Pakistan when it comes to ousting the US and having a regime that has been nursed and nurtured in the madrasas of Peshawar and other strategic points in Pakistan. This can be accepted only with certain caveats.
The prospects of Taliban coming back to power in Kabul and the return of Pakistan in the US calculus worries New Delhi. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan may have assured Trump that his country had jettisoned the idea of strategic depth, but Islamabad is at the center of the Afghan stabilisation program. Khalilzad’s exertions are also premised on Pakistan’s promise and help to look after US bases and to rein in its murderous assets like the Haqqani network from wreaking mayhem in Afghanistan.
India was quietly happy when Trump killed the deal with Taliban before it could be signed in his hill resort, Camp David. However, it is now bracing itself for a complicated situation if the new government chooses to accommodate the Taliban. There is clarity in the mind of the US Special Representative of how this arrangement will play out, but Afghan leaders are resentful of the inordinate importance that is being given to a group that holds just 11 percent of the landmass and does not represent the will of the people.
Stoning of women to death in public places and sexual atrocities on little girls forcibly picked up by old men, while a complete clampdown on education and free movement of women, has been well-documented during that dark and difficult era of the Taliban.
Attempts have been made to repackage sections of the Taliban that is not so sinister, repressive and fundamentalist as it was when they were in power, but women and many of those who prospered after their ouster are afraid with the possibility of the return of those dark days when they went on a killing spree in Kabul and sent women behind the abaya (long black robe worn by Saudi women). Stoning of women to death in public places and sexual atrocities on little girls forcibly picked up by old men, while a complete clampdown on education and free movement of women, has been well-documented during that dark and difficult era of the Taliban.
India’s worry is less about Afghanistan and more about Pakistan. It can ignore Afghanistan, but it is wary of Pakistan regaining proximity with Kabul and thus its military muscle in the region. It knows the implications of US support to Pakistan and its detrimental impact on Kashmir. New Delhi believes that its problems will exacerbate with the rehabilitation of Islamabad.
The election results and how the new government in Kabul accommodates the Taliban in the days to come will decide whether this peace will end the relentless conflict and daily violence and deaths of innocents in this region. Indeed, that is why, not only India and Pakistan, the whole world is waiting for the results anxiously.