Almost in nearly 20 years of conflict resulting from the invasion and military occupation of Afghanistan by the US, representatives of the US backed Afghan government and Taliban leaders for the first time met face to face on Saturday, September 12 in Doha, Qatar. The peace negotiations are a part of a "peace deal'' the US signed with the Taliban in February this year in the Qatari capital to end military stalemate in Afghanistan. The February agreement with the Taliban was reached to give shape to the promise US President Donald Trump gave to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan during his 2016 election campaign. But the US had ramped up pressure on its own backed regime in Afghanistan to start negotiations with the Taliban to work out the future political landscape of Afghanistan enabling the US to start withdrawing its troops from the country. The issue has now become more urgent as President Trump is facing re-election very soon.
At the opening ceremony, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the direct formal peace talks as "a truly momentous occasion". He further cautioned that the way forward would "require hard work and sacrifice''. In response Taliban Chief Negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in his brief remark called for an Afghanistan "where everyone lives in peace and harmony and no one feels any discrimination".
The Taliban now speaks from a position of strength as it now controls half of the territory of the country while the US backed Kabul based government remains fractured notwithstanding the power sharing arrangement signed in May this year between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. The Taliban agenda has remained steady since its first meeting with US officials 10 years ago to achieve peace in Afghanistan, withdrawal of US forces and a substantial role in the Afghan government.
A document published by the Indian embassy in Kabul recently starts with "India and Afghanistan have strong relationship based on history and cultural links". But that historical and cultural relationships have been a problematic one, in particular for the present Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu supremacist political party now in power in New Delhi. The invasion of India and looting of Hindu temples for gold and precious metals by Mahmud of Ghazni from Afghanistan in the early 11th century ushered in a long period extending over 700 years of Afghan-Turkic rule in India which is described as the "Muslim rule'' by Indian historians. This is a period now considered as one of national humiliation by Hindu supremacists led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That part of the history is now being rewritten by Hindutva inspired Indian historians.
But overall bilateral relationships between Afghanistan and India have remained friendly and strong since India gained independence in 1947. India was the only South Asian country that recognised the Soviet installed Afghan government in the 1980s. By doing so, India was complicit in creating an environment for the US to sponsor, finance and organise Islamic radicals to fight against Soviet troops in Afghanistan and the consequences of that are still lingering on.
India was also active along with the US in the overthrow of the Taliban government and has become an active strategic partner of the country's US backed government since then. In effect, India has been trying to eke out a role as the Deputy Sherriff of the US in Afghanistan, more precisely in the wider central Asian region enabling the US to reduce its involvement and resources in the region. The US also sees such a robust Indian role will serve to advance other US foreign and strategic policy objectives in the region and beyond, especially confronting China.
However, to what extent India is economically capable of undertaking those tasks is the issue. There is no doubt India harbours those ambition but its economic reach remains very limited as reflected in the prevalence of extreme poverty and squalor in the country. According to the World Bank India was home to 24 per cent of global poor (who earn less than US$1.90 a day) in 2019 and during the same year according to the World Hunger Index India ranked 102 out of 117 countries putting India much below its smaller neighbours like Bangladesh (88), Nepal (73) and Sri Lanka (66).
In the newly emerging political landscape in Afghanistan, India is concerned about the emerging possibility of anti-Indian activities supported by Pakistan originating from Afghanistan. That will further be destabilising Indian occupied Kashmir. India's security concerns are primarily Pakistan-centric, not Afghanistan-centric. On the other hand, Pakistan alleges that the Indian intelligence agency RAW is using Afghanistan as a base to sponsor terrorist activities in areas such as Baluchistan in Pakistan which of course India denies.
while the US-Taliban agreement stipulates the Taliban to "prevent any group or individual including Al-Qaeda from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the US and its allies", it does not list who these US allies are and whether India makes the cut. To further add to India's anxiety, the agreement also does not include a list of groups which might be anti-Indian. However, the US Chief Negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad called on India to discuss the issue directly with the Taliban. But given India's policy to stay tuned to the US backed government in Kabul with a preference for no-deal with the Taliban which may favour Pakistan, opening any channel of communication with the Taliban can very be challenging, if not impossible.
India was invited to attend the Intra-Afghan Peace Talks by the Qatari government. Accordingly, India sent a high level delegation to the Intra-Afghan Peace Talks to take part in the proceedings but Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar addressed the conference through video. He started his video speech with a very lofty statement that "Our friendship with Afghanistan is strong and unshaken, we have always been good neighbours and will always be so". It must be noted that India does not share any common land border with Afghanistan.
I was quite fascinated by what then followed in the video speech delivered by Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar at the Intra-Afghan Peace talks. It was a carefully crafted speech to ensure regional and strategic interests of India in Afghanistan which are understandable. However, my fascination revolved around a limited number of issues he raised or more precisely what type of Afghanistan India wants to see once peace is restored in Afghanistan, a kind of pontification.
But peace in Afghanistan by all reckoning is still a long way off if one looks at countries that the US defeated in a war and occupied such as Germany and Japan where US troops are still there since the end of the World War II. Also, in Iraq US troops are still there since the invasion and occupation of the country in 2001 despite the "withdrawal of troops" from the country. It is highly unlikely things will be any different in Afghanistan. Only where the US was decisively defeated in a military engagement as happened in Vietnam that US troops left the invaded country.
Therefore, India can take some comfort that the US military will still be there enabling India to play a leading role in Afghanistan so long India can carry on the economic burden involved in performing such a role. Also, Pakistanis there, and will strongly oppose such a robust role of India with the support of the US in Afghanistan and respond in such ways which may work to the detriment of both India and the US.
The issues that Jaishankar emphasised in a very prescriptive way look rather quite hypocritical given his very important ministerial position in a government run by the BJP, a Hindu Supremacist Party. His prescription included among others that the peace must:
l Respect national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan;
l Promote human rights and democracy;
l Ensure interest of minorities, women and the vulnerable; and
l Effectively address violence across the country
What India preaches to other countries such as Afghanistan and what it practises at home is the question now many are asking. On all those counts India is found to be seriously deficient.
India's record of respecting notional sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbouring countries remain rather very dismal. It appears India's territorial boundaries are still a work in progress like Israel, a country India considers a model to give demographic solution to the only Muslim majority area in India, Kashmir. India has always taken very muscular stance on border issues with its neighbours including China. Killing of Bangladeshi citizens by Indian troops along border areas is a regular occurrence.
Politically motivated hate campaign against religious minorities, especially Muslims in India has a very long history and the list is too long to mention here. Most often hate crimes against Muslims are committed with the help of the police and any recourse to justice is always very remote as all police investigations always blame the victims (i.e,Muslims) not the perpetrators. Now even constitutionally guaranteed peaceful protests face police and Hindu supremacists' violence as was seen in anti-Muslim violence in Delhi in February this year. The National Human Rights Commission and The National Commission for Minorities did everything possible to prove their irrelevance.
About 200 million Muslims in India are now in danger of losing their civil rights and residency through the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizenship. 13 million Kashmiris are now stripped of their constitutionally guaranteed position and live under curfews enforced by a heavily reinforced military presence reducing them to colonial servitude. Since 1990, about 10,000 Kashmiris disappeared. But the US has been backing the Modi government in this endeavour with its hope that India will be a counterbalance to China.
Noam Chomsky in an interview with Karthik Ramanathan said ''In India what we are seeing now is the symptoms of fascism''. Prime Minister Modi's party BJP is the political wing of the RSS-- the Hindu supremacist organisation established in the early 1920s inspired by the Nazi ideology. The three founding leaders of the RSS, K.B. Hedgeware, M.S. Golwakar and V.D. Savarkar had close links with German Nazis and Italian Fascists. Modi himself has started his political career as a Pracharak (preacher) in the RSS before transiting to its political wing-- the BJP.
Modi's Hindu supremacist Hindutva ideology holds India to be the home for Hindus only and also created a state sanctioned Islamophobia to achieve that objective. Now state sanctioned Islamophobia has exposed 200 million Muslims in the country to unspeakable horror. To further double down on humiliating Indian Muslims, Prime Minister Modi laid the foundation stone of a Hindu temple last month on the site of a sixteenth century mosque destroyed by Hindu supremacist mobs in 1992. But attempt to marginalise 200 million Muslims would not be possible without resorting to extreme violence and that will engender resistance. The riots in Delhi in February this year were a fore taste of that. It is not yet too late for India to learn to practise what it preaches to others to create an inclusive society.