1.India must directly engage with Taliban 2.0
The time for hesitant, backchannel parleys is over and New Delhi has to begin ‘open talks’ as it is a strategic necessity
With the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan in process, New Delhi has decided to ramp down its civilian presence in the war-torn country, bracing for a full-blown civil war. India has ‘temporarily’ closed its consulate in Kandahar and evacuated its diplomats and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel stationed there. This follows the decision to suspend operations in the Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Herat. As a result, India today is left with its Embassy in Kabul and the consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif.
The Taliban’s sway
These developments indicate two things: New Delhi’s decision to partially “withdraw” from Afghanistan shows that betting only on the government in Kabul was a big mistake, and that New Delhi realises the threat Taliban poses to Indian assets and presence in Afghanistan. Either way, India’s Afghan policy is at a major crossroads; to safeguard its civilian assets there as well as to stay relevant in the unfolding ‘great game’ in and around Afghanistan, New Delhi must fundamentally reset its Afghanistan policy.
India must, in its own national interest, begin ‘open talks’ with the Taliban before it is too late. The time for hesitant, half-embarrassed backchannel parleys is over. However, when I say it is time to ‘openly’ talk to the Taliban, I do not mean according recognition to the Taliban. In any case, what is there to ‘recognise’ at this point as far as the Taliban is concerned? It is only one of the parties in Afghanistan — it is neither the Afghan government, nor a part of it. Not yet. But with over a third of Afghanistan’s more than 400 districts under Taliban control, the talk-to-the-Taliban-option is indeed the best of the many less than perfect options available to India.
To be fair, New Delhi has been steadily abandoning its puritanical policy towards the Taliban over the past few years. In late 2018, when Moscow organised a conference which had the Taliban, members of the Afghan High Peace Council, and other countries from the region in attendance, India sent a ‘non-official delegation’ of two retired diplomats to Moscow. Thereafter, in September last year, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar joined the inaugural session of the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha. Last month, reports indicated that India has started reaching out to the Taliban which was indirectly confirmed by the Ministry of External Affairs when it said “we are in touch with various stakeholders in pursuance of our long-term commitment towards development and reconstruction in Afghanistan”.
However, such half-hearted, half-embarrassed, ideologically-hesitant meandering outreach to the Taliban is hardly sufficient to safeguard Indian interests in a rapidly shifting Afghan geopolitical landscape. Open dialogue with the Taliban should no longer be a taboo; it is a strategic necessity. Therefore, our outreach must now be direct and unambiguous. But before I explain why I say so, let me briefly analyse New Delhi’s rationale for the indirect approach to the Taliban.
Rationale for indirect talks
There are at least five possible reasons why New Delhi appears to want to keep the Taliban engagement slow and behind closed doors. For one, if New Delhi chooses to engage the Taliban directly, it could make Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, thus far India’s trusted partner, uneasy. This could potentially nudge him to look towards China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) for national security and personal political survival. So, in New Delhi’s calculation, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Two, decision makers in New Delhi are also faced with the dilemma of who to talk to within the Taliban given that it is hardly a monolith. New Delhi may have little access to the members of the Quetta Shura or the fighters on the ground in Afghanistan. So, the only option might be the Doha-based Taliban negotiators or leaders such as Abdul Salam Zaeef whose beef with Pakistan is well known. Third, given the global opprobrium that Taliban faced in its earlier avatar and the lack of evidence about whether the outfit is a changed lot today, New Delhi might not want to court the Taliban so soon. More so, there is little clarity about what the Taliban’s real intentions are going forward and what they would do after ascending to power in Kabul. Finally, it would not be totally unreasonable to consider the possibility of Pakistan acting out against India in Kashmir if India were to establish deeper links with the Taliban.
New Delhi’s rationale is not entirely erroneous. And yet, there are more compelling reasons why India should engage with the Taliban more proactively and openly. For one, whether we like it or not, the Taliban, one way or another, is going to be part of the political scheme of things in Afghanistan, and unlike in 1996, a large number of players in the international community are going to recognise/negotiate/do business with the Taliban. So, basic statecraft requires that we follow that route as well. Making peace with the fait accompli is not always a bad thing especially in the absence of better alternatives.
The Pakistan factor
Two, the Taliban today is looking for regional and global partners for recognition and legitimacy especially in the neighbourhood. So the less proactive the Indian engagement with the Taliban, the stronger Pakistan-Taliban relations would become. Put differently, and bluntly, letting the Pakistani deep state exclusively deal with the Taliban is an inherently bad idea.
Third, even though the Taliban is widely considered to be propped up by Pakistan, it would be a mistake to think that the Taliban will continue to be Pakistan’s servile followers upon gaining power in Kabul. A worldly-wise and internationally-exposed Taliban 2.0 would develop its own agency and sovereign claims including perhaps calling into question the legitimacy of the Durand Line separating Pakistan and Afghanistan, something Pakistan was always concerned about. More so, contrary to what many analysts assume, a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, next door to its Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan-infested tribal areas, may not really end up becoming a happy space for Pakistan. In other words, the Taliban would want to hedge their bets on how far to listen to Pakistan. That is precisely when New Delhi should engage the Taliban.
Four, India needs to court all parties in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, if it wants to ensure its security of its civilian assets there. It makes neither strategic nor economic sense to withdraw from Afghanistan after spending over $3 billion, something the Government seems to be prepared to do. Withdrawing from Afghanistan now because the Taliban is on the rise (and we do not want to have relations with them) will go on to highlight how weak our strategic resolve is.
Five, India’s outreach to the Taliban should have started years ago before the Taliban had many suitors as they do today. So, if India is not proactive in Afghanistan at least now, late as it is, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China will emerge as the shapers of Afghanistan’s political and geopolitical destiny, which for sure will be detrimental to Indian interests there.
Open the congested frontier
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, opening up the congested north-western frontier is key to bringing India’s continental grand strategy on an even keel, a process New Delhi has already started. Backchannel talks with Pakistan and a consequent ceasefire on the Line of Control, political dialogue with the mainstream Kashmiri leadership, secret parleys with Taliban all indicate that New Delhi is opening up its congested north-western frontier. Proactive engagement of the Taliban will provide this effort with more strategic heft.
Consider this. Except for the strategic foray into the Indo-Pacific, India today is strategically boxed in the region and it must break out of it. Afghanistan could provide, if not immediately, India with such a way out.
In the end, India’s engagement with the Taliban may or may not achieve much, but non-engagement will definitely hurt Indian interests. In an ideal world, the Taliban, given its bloody past, should not have been anywhere near governing Afghanistan, but it is neither an ideal situation nor is the Taliban stoppable from gaining power in Kabul. So New Delhi must exorcise the demons of IC-814 (the December 1999 hijacking) from its collective memory and engage with the Taliban 2.0 — there is no need to be secretive or embarrassed about it. And yet, open engagement of the Taliban is neither tolerating nor accepting the condemnable atrocities committed by the Taliban.
The speedy withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has been matched by the swift advance of the Taliban across the nation. While the US has confirmed that 90% of the withdrawal is done, the Taliban has claimed that it is in control of 85% of Afghanistan territory.
These developments have moved Afghanistan into the court of regional powers that now have the burden of managing the military vacuum created by the US retreat.
The idea of a regional solution to Afghanistan has always had much political appeal. But divergent regional strategic perspectives limit the prospects for a sustainable consensus on Afghanistan.
US Withdrawal and Regional Powers
- Taliban: Taliban itself remains a major variable. If the Taliban does not accommodate the interests of all Afghans, it simply sets the stage for the next round of the civil war in Afghanistan.
- The Taliban is also signalling that it will not be a proxy for anyone else and that it will pursue independent policies.
- China: The US withdrawal from Afghanistan today reinforces the strongly held conviction in China that the US is in terminal decline.
- The withdrawal, at a time when China is offering an alternative to the Western model of international governance, is seen in China as a great ideological victory.
- However, for China, potential Taliban support to the Xinjiang separatist groups is a major concern.
- India: India will have three critical areas in dealing with the Taliban.
- Protecting its investments, which run into billions of rupees, in Afghanistan;
- Preventing a future Taliban regime from being a pawn of Pakistan;
- Making sure that the Pakistan-backed anti-India terrorist groups do not get support from the Taliban.
- Other: None of the regional countries want to see Afghanistan becoming the nursery of international terror again under the Taliban.
- Iran can’t ignore the Sunni extremism of the Taliban and its oppressive record in dealing with the Shia, and Persian-speaking minorities.
- Pakistan worries about the danger of the conflict spilling over to the east of the Durand Line, and hostile groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) gaining sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
- The era of prolonged peace in Afghanistan secured by the US military presence has come to its end.
- This would mean new constraints on India’s ability to operate inside Afghanistan.
- Three structural conditions will continue to shape India’s Afghan policy.
- One is India’s lack of direct physical access to Afghanistan. This underlines the importance of India having effective regional partners.
- Pakistan has the capability to destabilise any government in Afghanistan. But it does not have the power to construct a stable and legitimate order in Afghanistan.
- The contradiction between the interests of Afghanistan and Pakistan is an enduring one.
- Pakistan likes to turn Afghanistan into a protectorate, but Afghans deeply value their independence. All Afghan sovereigns, including the Taliban, will look for partners to balance Pakistan.
- India should focus on intensifying its engagement with various Afghan groups, including the Taliban and finding effective regional partners to secure its interests in a changing Afghanistan.
2. U.K. wants new trade deal for N. Ireland
European Union rebuffs Britain’s demand for renegotiation on post-Brexit trading arrangements
Britain demanded on Wednesday that the European Union renegotiate post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland after rioting and business disruption hit the province, but the EU immediately rejected the offer.
London stopped short of suspending the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol — introduced at the start of the year, and which requires checks on goods arriving from mainland Britain — and instead called for “significant changes”.
It wants the European Union to indefinitely abandon ad-hoc grace periods for certain border checks and freeze legal action launched against the U.K. for non-compliance, as part of a “standstill period” allowing for fresh negotiations.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said while Britain had negotiated the protocol “in good faith”, its real-world application by the bloc had entailed “considerable and continuing burdens”.
“Put simply, we cannot go on as we are,” he told U.K. lawmakers.
“We urge the EU to look at it with fresh eyes and work with us to seize this opportunity and put our relations on a better footing.”
But within hours, the EU — which has long insisted that it is up to London to implement what it agreed in their drawn-out Brexit divorce — had ruled out any renegotiation.
“We are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the Protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland,” European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said in a statement. “However, we will not agree to a renegotiation of the Protocol.”
The protocol was painstakingly negotiated to avoid a hard border with Ireland, by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market.
Northern Ireland, which suffered three decades of sectarian conflict until a peace agreement in 1998, has been rocked by violence this year, in part against the protocol. Many pro-U.K. unionists see it as creating a de facto border in the Irish Sea with mainland Britain and say they feel betrayed.
In its proposals, Britain urged the EU to stop broad checks and focus more squarely on goods “genuinely” at risk of entering its single market via Northern Ireland. The government insisted for all other goods, a light touch was needed to preserve Northern Ireland’s integral status as part of the U.K. It also wants the removal of any oversight role by the European Court of Justice.
What is the issue?
- The UK has demanded “significant” changes to Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements [the Northern Ireland Protocol].
- The rift over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland is threatening to become a full-scale confrontation between Britain and the European Union.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
- The Brexit treaty on Northern Ireland was negotiated by British PM Boris Johnson and called the Northern Ireland Protocol.
- The Northern Ireland frontier is long-contested.
- Parts of it were fortified during the decades of violence known as The Troubles.
- But after a peace deal in the late 1990s, those visible signs of division have melted way along the open border.
- No one wants checkpoints back.
- The single market allowed goods to flow freely across European borders without checks.
- But as part of the Brexit plan, Boris Johnson insisted on leaving Europe’s customs union and its single market.
- This would require bringing back checkpoints at the border.
- The protocol thus sets out a plan to deal with this unique situation.
- It had sought to avoid a hard border coming up between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (EU member).
- Accordingly, the region is expected to follow some EU rules in trade with the Irish Republic.
- This effectively leaves Northern Ireland half inside the European system, and half inside the British one.
- The hard Brexiteers in Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party were critical of this clause, claiming that it endangers the U.K.’s sovereignty.
What are the key contentions?
- The current trade arrangement means more checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain.
- This effectively creates a border down the Irish Sea and divides the UK.
- Faced with all the new bureaucracy, some British companies have stopped supplying stores in Northern Ireland.
- They simply said that they could not handle the added paperwork now needed.
- For some in Northern Ireland who want the region to remain part of the UK, it feels as if their British identity is under threat.
- Johnson’s alliesaccuse the EU of inflexibility in applying rules.
- They are also concerned about the lack of sensitivity to feelings in parts of Northern Ireland and vengeful hostility toward Britain for exiting the bloc.
- Beyond the trade concerns, there are also fears about the fragility of the Northern Ireland peace.
- EU leaders believe that the bloc’s existential interests are being put at risk.
- [The single market is one of its cornerstones. If that is undermined, it could threaten the building blocks of European integration.]
- U.S. President Joe Biden, who talks often about his Irish heritage, has also warned Johnson not to do anything to undermine the trade arrangement that helped to end the violence.
What is the recent development?
- Britain said that the treaty could create so many problems.
- It expects that the treaty might have to be abandoned if it cannot be rewritten.
- The European Commission, the EU’ s executive body, said it would seek creative solutions but would not renegotiate the deal.
- With UK’s present demand for changes to the trade arrangement, the post-Brexit relations between Britain and the EU is further strained.
What options does Britain have?
- Britain says it has grounds already to deploy an emergency clause known as Article 16.
- The Article permits it to act unilaterally, effectively allowing it to suspend parts of the protocol.
- It doesnot plan to do so for the moment, but the option remains.
- If Britain does this, the European side will most likely accuse Johnson of breaking a treaty.
- This could lead to retaliation and even a trade war between Britain and the EU.
- Meanwhile, Britain’s current stance is also seen as a negotiation tactic, to bring EU to terms.