In June 2015, the rich Northern European country of Norway served as the unlikely host to a delegation of Afghan Taliban representatives and officials from the Afghanistan government. Norway has never shied away from attempting to mediate global conflicts. This land of just over 5 million people has done more than most in the name of peace, from mediating between the LTTE and Sri Lankan government to playing a successful role in ending the 50-year war between the Colombian state and the leftist FARC rebels in 2016.
The fact that the Taliban set up an office in Doha in 2013 for talks with not just the Afghan government but international actors as well could be seen as the initial sign that the American-led military campaign to dismantle the Taliban, launched as a reaction to 9/11 in 2003, was coming to an inconclusive conclusion. However, the Taliban’s Oslo sojourn and the Norway’s enthusiasm for ending global conflicts produced a convergence of a sort.
The Taliban had developed some confidence in the Norwegians, specifically their diplomat, Alfe Arne Ramslien, whose work to gain the terror group’s trust had proven astonishingly successful in 2007. According to a report by The New York Times, the Norwegians even managed a coup, orchestrating a late-night meeting with the then elusive and now deceased Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammed Omar, himself.
Since then we have seen not just the mainstreaming of the Taliban and dialogue processes around the terror group, but the international community and actors also opening dialogue processes with the organization. While the Norwegians have met Taliban representatives in cities such as Oslo, Karachi and Bangkok, the Chinese have hosted an Afghan Taliban delegation led by Qatar office chief Sher Abbas Stanikazi. This visit to Beijing came only days after Chinese, Pakistani and Russian diplomats met in Moscow and called for Taliban leaders be removed from the United Nations sanctions list, and Moscow, perhaps savoring the irony, offered to host peace talks between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban. The U.S., China, Russia and other Western nations are now in the mood to bring the Taliban into Afghan politics. But these maneuvers, initiated after nearly 15 years of Western military efforts, are stepping on the toes of some other vital and influential partners in the Afghan story, most notably, India.
New Delhi has maintained a highly visible marketed stance on terrorism, namely that the concept of “good” terrorists and “bad” terrorists is invalid. India’s stakes in Afghanistan are great, as it fears any mainstreaming of the Taliban into the fabric of Afghan politics would give unbridled access to archrival Pakistan, as its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) provides, protects and manages the Taliban from its fortresses in Rawalpindi. However, India’s argument against political acceptance or normalization of the Taliban is in danger of leaving New Delhi isolated.
Last month, the Afghan government made a valuable breakthrough by bringing to a close its long-standing battle with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hizb-i-Islami (HIG). Hekmatyar, warlord to some, terrorist to others (as designated by the U.S.-led Coalition) dropped his most prevalent precondition for any peace process with the state, that of a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghan soil. A disciple of Egyptian Islamic scholar Sayyid Qutb’s vision of political Islam via the Muslim Brotherhood, Hekmatyar has been dubbed “Butcher of Kabul” for single-handedly being responsible for most of the civilian deaths that city saw in the 1990s. His return is no sudden epiphany, but is rather the outcome of political negotiations and deal-making between him and the Afghan government over the past six years.
On his return to Kabul, Hekmatyar called for peace with the Afghan Taliban while speaking at the presidential palace, an area that in years past his forces bombarded mercilessly. He addressed the Taliban as “brothers,” as he positions himself as a politician, mediator and statesman. Upon his arrival, his engagements also included a host of meetings with foreign diplomats, including a dialogue with India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Manpreet Vohra.
The optics of India’s acceptance of Hekmatyar, perhaps at the behest of the Ghani government, are confusing. As Vohra and Hekmatyar sat down for the meet, India’s flag shared the stage with the flag of Hizb-i-Islami and not that of Afghanistan, highlighting the intricacies and grey areas between HIG and the Afghan government that still prevail. More than this, however, the meeting threw the spotlight on India’s hard line on the “good terrorist-bad terrorist” hypothesis. In preparation for the success of Afghan government’s talks with HIG, the UNSC removed Hekmatyar from its sanctions list (although other HIG commanders remain on it) and the U.S. praised this reconciliation.
The security situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating over the past few months, with more frequent attacks on the Afghan armed forces and the Taliban making territorial gains. It is perhaps the geographical advances and re-establishment of supremacy by the Taliban in parts of the country that has most worried Washington and others, including New Delhi. According to the latest report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Afghanistan directly controls only 24 percent of the country and influences 36 percent of it. Meanwhile, the Taliban and other insurgents contest, influence or control 40 percent of Afghan territory. Despite the U.S. committing further troops to a war they thought had ended, Kabul does not see military operations as an effective way of diminishing the Taliban, and perhaps no one but the Afghan government now has the experience to make that call.
This leaves India in a bind. As a major influence in Afghanistan with billions of dollars invested in developmental projects, New Delhi has sternly maintained that there is no differentiating between “good” and “bad” terrorists. On this basis, India has not – officially at least – engaged in negotiations with the Taliban or approached the group’s Doha office. However, not viewing Hekmatyar as a terrorist on the basis of the Kabul-led reconciliation begs the question: Should India now also look at participating in multilateral (or even bilateral) dialogues with the Taliban? This would mean softening its line on the “good” and “bad” terrorist view and being open to such groups’ political validity. True, a change now on this front could also have domestic political implications for India. Nonetheless, if New Delhi continues its policy of refusing to see any political validity in the Afghan Taliban, it could also be sidelined from the political jigsaw puzzle and lose the position it has spent years building via goodwill and development. Even Hekmatyar during his meeting with Vohra highlighted India’s developmental work, thanking India for the Salma Dam in Herat province.
India’s approach in Afghanistan has been centered on developmental projects and aid; however, its understanding of the political landscape may be in need of drastic shift. While Rawalpindi’s influence on the Taliban and the Quetta shura is undeniable, New Delhi needs to revisit its Afghanistan policy and position it in a long-term frame, one attuned to the changing dynamics. If that means opening official channels with the Taliban, then such an idea should be given space for deliberations.
Kabir Taneja is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.