When United States Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in New Delhi on June 24 for the annual India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, Afghanistan will be one of the dominant topics on the table.
With the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops fast approaching, ISAF’s (International Security Assistance Force) handover of security responsibilities to Afghan troops on June 18 marked a crucial moment in the country’s quest towards managing its own affairs. Yet, the military transition arrives against a backdrop of one of the bloodiest months of the decades-long conflict, following audacious attacks by insurgents on Kabul’s international airport as well as on a court in the Afghan capital earlier this month. The attacks raise serious questions over the ability of the fledging Afghan Security Forces (ANSF) to secure the country after the exit of ISAF troops.
The handover also coincided with the U.S. announcing that it would begin holding direct talks with the Taliban, which opened a political office in the Qatari capital of Doha. The move to open the office infuriated the Afghan government, which responded on June 19 by suspending talks with Washington on a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA).
Announcing the move, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faizi told AFP, “The president suspended the BSA talks with the U.S. this morning (June 19),” adding that this was due to “a contradiction between what the U.S. government says and what it does regarding Afghanistan peace talks.” Latest reports have the U.S. placing talks with the Taliban on hold.
The security pact was meant to provide a strategic framework for some U.S. troops to remain in the country after a large chunk of the 66,000 American troops currently present in Afghanistan pull out by the end of 2014. By setting the contours that would determine the number of troops that will remain along with their mandate, the pact was meant to set the pace of U.S. engagement with Afghanistan post-2014. However, the suspension of talks casts a shadow of uncertainty over the U.S.-Afghan partnership, which has been characterized by constant sparring and bickering over the form, structure and timing of any peace talks with the Taliban.
Indeed, the announcement of the direct talks between Washington and the Taliban came hours after President Karzai announced on June 18 that he was dispatching members of his Afghan High Peace Council to Doha to discuss prospects of a peace settlement with the Taliban.
In light of the announcement on the direct talks, which seems to have taken the Karzai government by surprise, it is now uncertain if the Afghan High Peace Council delegation will carry out their visit to Qatar. While in the loop over Taliban’s imminent plans to open a political office, the Afghan government seems to have been particularly taken aback by the form it took. According to The Guardian, this includes the display of a white Taliban flag and repeated use of the name "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," both in Taliban statements and on a printed backdrop used for a televised press conference.
The Afghan government believes that using the name associated with the insurgent group’s iron grip over Afghanistan during their rule from 1996-2001, combined with the display of the flag, gives the Taliban an air of legitimacy. Kabul also seems miffed at the U.S. for setting aside key pre-conditions that the Taliban was expected to meet before any wide-ranging peace talks. These included cessation of violent campaigns and respecting the Afghan constitution.
While cautiously supporting the need for peace talks, the government in Kabul had also drawn clear red lines such as the stipulation that the Taliban office could not be used as a base for fundraising or building diplomatic relationships. At the root of the Karzai government’s anger may lie growing fears of being sidelined in the peace talks and in effect constraining its ability to influence the outcome of such discussions.
As a close ally of the current Afghan government, India will share Kabul’s assessment of a perceived backsliding in Afghanistan – a concern it will express to the visiting U.S. Secretary of State. New Delhi fears that a post-2014 Afghanistan that co-opts the Taliban as part of a power-sharing agreement could become a hot-bed of religious extremism and militancy, and reverse the gains made over the past decade. Such fears could also push India to respond to the Karzai government’s request in May to provide military equipment to Afghanistan’s security forces, an eventuality that will almost certainly exacerbate regional tensions and intensify geopolitical rivalries over Afghanistan.