On May 23, 2020, a statement issued by the Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid announced [i]
that the group will not stage any attack on ‘enemy’ forces, but will maintain the right to defend itself against potential threats. Taliban foot soldiers across the country were instructed to refrain from entering government areas and similarly, the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF) were expected not to enter the territories under control of the Taliban. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the ceasefire announcement and reciprocated with a similar announcement asking the government forces to act only if attacked. Subsequently, the Afghan President pledged to release up to 2000 Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture in response to Taliban’s call for Eid ceasefire and will take further steps to ensure the success of the peace process.This move comes after months of fighting between the insurgent group and the government forces continue unabated, at a time when Afghanistan struggles to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. In the past few weeks there have been a spate of violent attacks including the brutal attack on a hospital in Dasht-e-Barchi settlement of Kabul, which led to the killing of 24 people, including 16 women and two newborn babies.[ii] On the same day, a suicide bomb attack on a funeral procession killed 32 people in the Nangarhar province[iii]. These attacks almost derailed the progress towards peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Although the Taliban denied involvement in both attacks, these incidents accelerated tensions with President Ghani ordering the military to switch to offensive mode. National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Mohib’s tweet – “There seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban is ‘peace talks’”[iv]reflected that patience had worn thin in the presidential palace -Arg. On May 11, the Afghan government suspended the release of insurgent prisoners, saying the Taliban must bring its total number of released security force members to 200- the government claimed that so far the group had only freed 105.[v] Under the given circumstances, the three-day ceasefire and the positive response of the Afghan government seem to have given a new lease of life to the crumbling “Peace Agreement”.
Despite the signing of the US-Taliban accord on February 29, ‘peace’ has remained elusive in Afghanistan due to differences in positions between the Taliban and the Afghan government over the release of prisoners. The stated deadline of March 10 for the intra-Afghan dialogue to begin seemed both ambitious and improbable. Moreover, the political deadlock between President Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, the threat of aid cut and relentless violence amidst the fast spreading pandemic complicated the path to peace in the country even further. Finally, a power sharing arrangement could be finalized between the presidential rivals which allows Ghani to stay on as President sharing an equal number of ministries with Abdullah Abdullah who will lead peace talks with the Taliban.The end of the political impasse in Kabul was unanimously welcomed by the international community which hoped for the commitment of the two leaders to act in support of the beginning of the intra-Afghan negotiations.
Considering the approaching Presidential elections in the United States (US) and the dip in poll numbers[vi] of President Donald Trump due to health and economic situation in the country, the revival of the dying peace process had become imperative for Washington. This was underlined by the three nation visit of the US Representative for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, amidst the period of lockdown. During his tour to Doha, New Delhi and Islamabad, the envoy sought support “for an immediate reduction in violence, accelerated timeline for the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations, and cooperation among all sides in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan.[vii] In Qatar, he met the Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Baradar and pressed for a speedy release of prisoners and the intra-Afghan talks.
While in India, Khalilzad met External Affairs Minister (EAM) S.Jaishankar and National Security Adviser (NSA)Ajit Doval and briefed them on the progress in the peace process and stressed that “New Delhi needs to be part of the process if we need to contribute effectively to the (Afghan) peace process.”[viii] New Delhi on its part raised its issue of terror emanating from Pakistan and reiterated its continued support for strengthening peace, security, unity, democratic and inclusive polity and the protection of rights of all sections of Afghan society, including religious minorities like Afghan Sikhs and Hindus.The US has even recommended that India take-up its concerns regarding terrorism –with the Taliban directly. It is possible that America’s push for India’s greater role is merely a stance to allow the US to start the intra-Afghan negotiations and pull out from Afghanistan at the earliest. India possibly is cognizant of such covert objectives of the US and is suspicious of the real intent of the Taliban- a reason why it is taking time to change its stance vis-à-vis the group.
India has been closely following the developments in Afghanistan and so far, has adopted a cautious approach. Despite being skeptical of any kind of rushed deal, it had welcomed the initial pact. It has consistently backed the Ghani government and would want the Taliban to recognize the democratic structures in Afghanistan. During the ongoing pandemic, India has been supplying medical aid and food to Afghanistan consistently, following its policy of helping common Afghans. Taliban spokesperson has indicated that they do see the value in having stable ties with neighbours including India and has welcomed India’s “contribution and cooperation in the reconstruction of future Afghanistan.”[ix] Moreover, after India revoked Article 370, the group made it clear that the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir should not be linked to Afghanistan. Like other stakeholders in Afghanistan, they perhaps recognise the merit in engaging with New Delhi which has played a substantive role in Afghanistan and whose assistance will be critical for whoever might be in power in Afghanistan in future. The question remains whether India would revise its approach and engage with the insurgent group?
Former Indian envoy to Afghanistan, Amb. Amar Sinha in an interview stated that “India will engage with every political force in Afghanistan but let Taliban at least prove that it has turned it into a political force by adjourning violence.”[x] He is of the opinion that India is in a better position given its neutrality, its consistent policy of supporting the democratic mandate and also because it has links with entire spectrum of leadership in Afghanistan. India should therefore, try and send across the message to all Afghans including the Taliban about the need to sit together and bring an end to the war. India, has welcomed the three-day ceasefire in Afghanistan, and has expressed hope that the Eid ceasefire will extend further and become permanent so that the country can better cope with the coronavirus pandemic and pave the way for a durable peace. If the ceasefire does provide a breakthrough in the Afghan peace process, the alteration in the geopolitical equations would demand India to devise a proactive engagement policy with the Taliban, not only for preserving its considerable equities in Afghanistan but also, for India’s national interests.
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal.
[i] “Ghani pledges release of upto 2000 Taliban prisoners”.The Tolo News, May 24, 2020. Avialble at: https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/ghani-pledges-release-2000-taliban-prisoners (Accessed on 25.5.2020)
[ii]“Women and Children wounded in attack on hospital in Kabul.” The ToloNews, May 13, 2020. Available at : https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/women-children-wounded-attack-hospital-kabul(Accessed on 24.5 2020)
[iii]“Deadly suicide attack targets funeral in Nagarhar”. Al Jazeera, May13, 2020. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/afghanistan-deadly-suicide-attack-targets-funeral-nangarhar-200512081739828.html (Accessed on 24.5.2020)
[v] “Ghani pledges release of upto 2000 Taliban prisoners”.The ToloNews,Op.cit.
[vii]SuhasiniHaider, “ U.S. recognises India’s role in Afghanistn: Khalilzad”.The Hindu,May 7, 2020. Available at:https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/us-recognises-indias-role-in-afghanistan-khalilzad/article31529421.ece(Accessed on 25.5.2020)
[ix] Afghan Taliban Spokesperson SuhailShaheen stated in a webinar titled “The Afghan Peace Process- The way Ahead”. Global Counter Terrorism Council, April 23, 2020. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/573796162791562 (Accessed on 25.5 2020)
[x] “The Taliban Tangle”, Amb. Amar Sinha (Former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan)in conversation with Smista Sharma.ETV Bharat Exclusive,May 21, 2020. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HIh1TgqdTIU&t=1400s (Accessed on 25.5.2020)