x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Pakistan and India wary of US-Taliban peace negotiations

Regional powers have serious concerns about, and competing interests in, the future of Afghanistan.

In one of most brazen attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan in recent times, militants disguised in foreign military uniforms attacked an area outside the heavily fortified presidential palace compound last Tuesday.

The Taliban called the attack part of their spring offensive and claimed to have used "special tactics" with "inside help".

The raid was timed to coincide with the visit to Kabul of James Dobbins, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it came a week after the Taliban opened an office in Qatar to pursue talks with the US on a political solution to the conflict.

The administration of the US president, Barack Obama, revealed last week that it will hold these talks with the Taliban, the first direct political contact between the two since early last year.

There was a lot of confusion initially because the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, refused to support the US initiative. Kabul was angered when the Taliban displayed their own flag during their press conference announcing the talks. Taliban representatives spoke in front of a banner that proclaimed, in Arabic, "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" - in effect portraying themselves as an alternative government.

Washington was forced to defend itself, with Mr Obama suggesting that such friction was no surprise. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, reportedly had to assure Mr Karzai that the Taliban flag had been removed from the new office, and that the sign had been changed to "Bureau of Peace Talks".

The Karzai government remains worried about its ability to fend off the Taliban after western troops leave Afghanistan next year. It certainly would not want the Taliban to gain any international acceptance at this stage.

But Washington, keen to preserve some semblance of normality in a country where it has been militarily involved for the past 12 years, wants to enter into some sort of negotiations with its major adversary. The looming withdrawal poses enormous challenges for the US and for Mr Karzai, as has been evident in recent days with not only the attacks in Kabul but also in the responses of regional states to the peace-talks initiative.

The peace talks were front and centre at discussions in New Delhi last week, when Mr Kerry visited for the fourth round of US "strategic dialogue" with India.

The government there believes Mr Kerry to be too sympathetic towards Pakistan's military-jihad complex. During Mr Kerry's confirmation hearings before the US Senate he argued that Pakistan has not received "credit sufficiently for the fact that they were helpful" in locating Osama bin Laden. He suggested that "it was their permissiveness in allowing our people to be there that helped us to be able to tie the knots".

Mr Kerry has opposed a "dramatic, draconian, sledgehammer approach" there, because Pakistan is a key US supply route into Afghanistan. Mr Kerry also helped broker the release of a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, who had been arrested on suspicion of murder, and later persuaded Pakistani officials to return parts of a US stealth helicopter that crashed during the May 2011 raid on Abbottabad.

Mr Kerry, who has called the Afghan war "unsustainable", has long advocated a Pakistan-centric Afghan policy.

India's other worry is the return of the Taliban. Pakistan is leveraging its role in the Afghan transition by releasing some Taliban leaders and supporting a negotiated settlement there.

Islamabad is understood to want to let the Taliban and the Islamist Haqqani network loose in post-2014 Afghanistan, to give Pakistan more influence over Kabul.

All this leaves India out of the Afghan picture, even though Mr Karzai wants an Indian presence to counterbalance Pakistan.

The more dominant Pakistan feels in the neighbourhood, the more it may be willing to risk confrontation with India.

There have also been damaging reports that Mr Kerry has struck a deal with the Pakistani army chief, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, that goes something like this: the army facilitates the US-Taliban talks; in exchange the US ignores the past activities of the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban, and works towards a power-sharing deal with the Taliban.

India has repeatedly said no peace initiative with the Taliban should cross certain "red lines" - there should be no talks unless the Taliban renounces links with Al Qaeda and accepts the Afghan constitution. The US has not required these preconditions.

India's external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, put it this way: India has "from time to time reminded all stakeholders about the red lines … drawn by the world community". These "should not be touched, should not be erased and should not be violated".

During Mr Kerry's visit, New Delhi pressed him to clarify his stand on the talks. He tried to assuage Indian concerns by suggesting that the talks would move forward only under certain conditions.

Mr Kerry also assured India that the US plans to continue supporting Afghanistan's military and to keep some US forces in the country after the scheduled combat-troop withdrawal in 2014. Washington has also sent Mr Dobbins, its special representative, to brief the Indian government.

It remains to be seen if this will be enough to make India comfortable with the changing US priorities in the region.

But what is very clear is that the road to negotiations in Afghanistan will be a very difficult one given all the domestic and regional stakeholders who will need to be reassured.


Harsh V Pant is a reader in international studies at King's College London