he recent US and Russia led peace negotiations with the Taliban and the surge in violence has yet again brought about renewed international attention to Afghanistan. In the ensuing battle of area domination between the Taliban and Afghan security forces, violence levels have peaked with a concomitant rise in civilian killings. As the conduct of the forthcoming Presidential elections is delayed, power reconfigurations and internal realignments can lead to further increase the levels of violence. In the light of these developments, it is imperative to shore up Afghan government’s institutional capacities and credibility in key sectors to prevent the backsliding of Afghanistan into further instability and chaos.
Deteriorating security and power contestations
The gory blood bath witnessed in Afghanistan in 2018 is shocking, saddening, and yet not so surprising. Resilience among local Afghans is hardly a matter of choice, while the elite remain well protected behind the blast walls. The place I had moved about relatively freely a decade back is now known as “Fortress Kabul”. Every visit since then to the country and particularly to government offices and diplomatic missions, I have seen a steady increase in the number of security barricades and height of the blast walls. The road from Kabul to Jalalabad on which I had travelled before by car is inaccessible now.
Amidst contested data on how much territory the Taliban actually controls, the violence levels peaked in 2018 in Afghanistan. Fatalities went up 11% compared to 2017, with 3,804 civilians killed in insurgency-related violence. It is generally assumed that the influence of the Taliban has spread to more than 70% of the country’s territory. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), in the words of President Ashraf Ghani, have lost more than 45,000 members since 2014. Violence is projected to escalate this spring as the insurgents demonstrate their strength amid the peace negotiations.
In the last few months, two separate and parallel negotiation processes with the Taliban have been initiated by Russia and the United States, further muddling the complex process of bringing peace to the conflict-ridden country. These externally mediated peace processes have not only set in a great power competition in the evolving ‘end-game’ in Afghanistan but has also led to internal-external realignments in light of the forthcoming presidential elections further complicating the situation.
What is more worrisome is the exclusion of the Afghan government in these peace processes, which the Taliban has refused to talk. The Taliban see the Kabul government as a Western puppet and have said they will negotiate directly with Washington. The delay of the conduct of presidential elections which was scheduled for April 2019 will further weaken the Afghan government’s negotiating potential.
The High Peace Council of the Afghan government which was established as the address for indigenous Afghan led and Afghan owned peace process is sidelined with externally mediated peace processes in Doha and Moscow. This has led to considerable amount of anxiety and distrust among the Afghans of the outcomes of such peace process.
Carrying on with violence, while maintaining their ambivalent support for a peace deal, has always been a Taliban strategy. In the past, such ‘fight and talk’ strategy was directed at negotiating from a position of strength. Now that the negotiations have begun and the processes have excluded the Afghan government, by their continued campaign against Afghan security forces and opponents of any peace deal, the insurgents are attempting to drive home a message that they are emerging as the victors in the long war and are in a position to dictate terms when a peace deal is finalized.
India’s preferred mode of ‘wait and watch’ policy in Afghanistan will limit its potential for consolidating its gains. In India’s strategic circles, debates over putting boots on Afghan ground, talking to the Taliban or to expand its development assistance programmes continue with little understanding of the changing dynamics on the ground. However, given Afghanistan’s strategic importance, a policy that accords secondary importance to a primary interest would not suffice.
Being the largest regional donor with pledges more than US $ 3 billion in various infrastructure and capacity building programs, India’s development assistance has accrued tremendous good will among the Afghans. During my visits to various provinces in Afghanistan (Kandahar, Nangarhar, Badkshan, Bamyan, Balkh, Herat), Afghans have expressed appreciation of India’s assistance. However, New Delhi has not capitalised this good will into tangible outcomes. Neither has New Delhi increased the scale of its assistance in critical areas as governance and institution building which would help increase the reach and credibility of the Afghan state.
In the security sector, New Delhi’s minimalistic approach has not helped strengthen the Afghan security forces to face the onslaught of the insurgency. This is viewed by the military elite in Afghanistan as reneging on the commitments made by India in the Agreement of Strategic Partnership Agreement of October 2014, the first agreement signed by India in the neighbourhood.
As there is a scramble among major countries to embrace the Taliban, New Delhi should exercise caution in participating in externally mediated peace processes. While some Indian commentators have joined the chorus of talking the Taliban, any such attempt violates India's core objective of building a strong and democratic Afghanistan that acts as a bulwark against the return of extremist forces. New Delhi needs to work towards helping Afghans build a national consensus.
India needs an ears-on-the-ground policy. Any further destabilization in Afghanistan will not be without serious consequences for India. Time, however, is in short supply in Afghanistan. In the regional reconfiguration of powers, New Delhi will have to act as a reliable friend and partner in the long term stabilization of Afghanistan.
(Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is founder and president of Mantraya. She has carried out field studies in Afghanistan for more than a decade)