New Delhi: At the calendar year inauguration of the Afghan parliament on Saturday, President Ashraf Ghani told the audience of Afghan lawmakers: transfer of power through elections is an uncompromising principle for us.
It was an appropriate line to say in an elected legislature, but viewers knew his remarks were aimed at another distant audience. That was Ghani’s response to a letter sent by the United States’ special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, on measures that would herald the imminent inclusion of the Taliban in a new interim configuration.
Ghani’s reaction, however, may just be the start of a series of political maneuvers sparked by the missive.
When Khalilzad was in Kabul from March 1-4, he hand delivered a letter from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. He informed senior Afghan leaders that the United States was still reviewing its Afghan policy, but it also wanted to speed up the pace of the peace process.
Even before the full letter was leaked on Sunday evening, Kabul had been in an uproar last week over the contents of Blinken’s letter to President Ghani and president of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah.
The letter called for the establishment of two mechanisms. First, Blinken suggested a regional conference under United Nations auspices with foreign ministers from six countries – the United States, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and India – to discuss a “unified approach” on the Afghanistan.
Second, the letter suggested a redux of ‘Bonn Conference ‘ with a national dialogue between the Taliban and the leaders of the Afghan government organized in Turkey.
Significantly, the United States has also sent written proposals, accompanied by the letter, to the Afghan government and the Taliban on the outline of a “new inclusive government”. It was a clear sign that the new Biden administration had appropriated a previous plan for a caretaker government, with some adjustments in its architecture.
During the last two weeks of the Trump administration in January, Khalilzad circulated a document that also called for an interim government. “He had not presented it then as a proposal on behalf of the United States. It elicited some reaction, but since it was the last days, it did not generate much interest, ”a government official said.
Two months later, Khalilzad, who now represented a new administration, was back with a strengthened proposal. It effectively rules out the intra-Afghan Doha talks, which have not resumed for three months amid incessant terrorist attacks.
After Kabul, Khalilzad traveled to Doha with the same recommendations to the Taliban – who have so far made no public comment.
On Sunday evening, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar tweeted that he had received a call from Khalilzad, in which they “were discussing the latest developments regarding the peace talks”.
Received a call from US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad @ US4AfghanPeace. Discussed the latest developments regarding the peace talks. We will stay in touch.
– Dr S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) March 7, 2021
Sources confirmed that Khalilzad spoke to Jaishankar about the proposals in the letter. They ruled out an immediate response, as India is still “studying” it.
However, India is likely to say publicly that it wants peace in Afghanistan and will participate in any process “constructively”. His statement is expected to fit within the paradigm of his support for an “Afghanistan-centric and Afghan-led” initiative.
Official sources also claimed that the inclusion of India in the format of the regional conference was a positive development.
But the malaise persists in New Delhi.
There is a strong perception that the United States is rushing to meet a deadline, once again. The US-Taliban agreement stipulates that there should be no more US troops on Afghan soil before May 1.
In the letter, Blinken said the United States was considering “the complete withdrawal of our forces by May 1, while we are considering other options.”
While the United States has publicly stated that the Taliban has not honored all of its commitments, Washington also does not want to give the insurgent group an excuse to walk out of the deal and embark on a full-fledged military campaign. If the national dialogue begins in Turkey as scheduled, it will be easier for the United States to tell the Taliban that the deadline may need to be lengthened or changed as talks begin, sources said.
India would be part of the regional conference, but the role of the UN-led forum and its relationship to intra-Afghan dialogue has not been clarified.
At the 2001 Bonn conference, regional actors participated in the actual negotiations at the same location. They played a crucial role in shaping the outcome which ultimately led to Hamid Karzai being chosen as Afghan leader. With two distinct paths, the United States will have the added advantage that Russian and Iranian influence will not distract the Afghan leadership from the plan.
Indian officials, as usual, are “monitoring developments closely.” But, of all the states in the region, India has been the only nation that has never felt comfortable with the peace process advocated by the United States, as New Delhi believes it is based on the notion of “comfort to the Pakistanis”.
In 2019, US officials also played with the formation of an interim government after formal talks with the Taliban began. India rejected the idea that the presidential elections should go as planned when the possibility of the elections being an obstacle was raised.
However, India will not stand in the way of US proposals – mainly because it lacks the power to do so, and New Delhi may instead work with Washington in other areas.
Instead, Indian officials still believe the best option is to engage with the Afghan leadership who will take part in the negotiations so that India’s interests are not harmed.
Afghan politics are very divided, with each side trying to ensure its political survival – but New Delhi believes it will not go beyond a certain outcome in allowing Pakistani influence on the power-sharing architecture .
“Their goal and our goal are pretty much the same. They cannot tolerate the idea of an Afghanistan strategically subordinate to Pakistan, ”said an Indian official.
According to diplomatic sources, there is not much difference in the institutional architecture between the document released by Khalilzad in January and the formal proposal made last week. However, we learn that some key words may have been changed, the emphasis being on “fairness” in the distribution of jobs in the new government.
President Ghani and his close associates have apparently rejected the latest US proposal – unsurprisingly, as it has a direct impact on their political pursuit. But, with the United States determined to engage in an interim government, Ghani’s public position may be more of a point of negotiation.
Besides Ghani and his entourage, the response from the rest of the Afghan political establishment was more positive. This is mainly due to the intense polarization of the Afghan political landscape, where politicians might adopt US proposals just to see Ghani leave.
Blinken’s letter also calls on Ghani to “expand this consultative group of four,” referring to Afghan President Abdullah Abdullah, former President Karzai and Pashtun leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. “The United States has been concerned for some time that Afghan politics are so divided that the Afghan government may not be effective in representing views in talks with the Taliban,” an official said.