The significant announcement by the United States to bring back all its troops from Afghanistan by September 11 this year opens up opportunities and challenges for India in equal measure. Over the last two decades, India has contributed immensely to the development works in the war-ravaged country. New Delhi must now use this goodwill and reach out to the moderate factions of the Taliban as Afghanistan grapples with the task of putting in place a transitional peace government. The Biden Administration has been rooting for this arrangement and a United Nations-led conference to discuss a unified approach. While making a positive contribution to the establishment of a transitional arrangement, India needs to keep in mind the possible consequences of the Taliban gaining an upper hand to influence the political dynamics of the country. With the endgame approaching in the wake of the US fixing a specific timeline for a complete pullout, it is possible that the Taliban could use this opportunity to push for an all-out battle for control, which would be disastrous for both Afghanistan and the region. It calls for some deft diplomatic manoeuvring on the part of India to counter Pakistan’s influence over the Islamist group and its time-tested policy of using Afghanistan as strategic depth against India. It must be pointed out that Indian assets in Afghanistan were frequently targeted in the past by the Haqqani group, a major Taliban faction. However, in the changed geopolitical realities in the wake of the US-Taliban agreement, India needs to reposition its priorities and reach out to the moderate sections within the Taliban.
India has taken a position that it supports an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process” for enduring peace and reconciliation in the country. However, the harsh reality, as reflected by the latest talks, is that the process is neither Afghan-led nor Afghan-controlled but is shepherded by the United States. And, the Taliban’s reliance on Pakistan is unlikely to change anytime in near future. Despite all this, India needs to stay engaged in the reconciliation process. Being more involved in the international negotiations and agreeing to talk to certain sections of the Taliban as part of a broader diplomatic initiative are options that India can no longer afford to ignore. Leaving the reconciliation process primarily to an unstable administration in Kabul will do no benefit to India’s long-term interests in the region. The Taliban is no longer an untouchable force and now controls much of the country’s rural territories. The US has already signed a deal with the Taliban, pledging a complete troop withdrawal, while China and Russia have also reached out to the outfit. India must seize this opportunity to be at the high table of peace talks.
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