The Associated Press has carried an exclusive report regarding the intensive, ongoing political dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban behind the scene, the appearance of a ‘stalemate’ notwithstanding. That such contacts have been going on was a widely known secret, but the AP report is specific regarding their high frequency and it discloses that these contacts are handled at a very high level. There is no reason to doubt the AP claim citing authoritative sources.
Thus, there are two aspects here – the timing of the ‘leak’ and the contents of the leak. The curious thing about the timing is that this ‘leak’ has appeared just 10 days after US President Donald Trump’s speech outlining the way forward in Afghanistan. To say the very least, the leak significantly moderates the US’ newly proclaimed Afghan strategy and gives it a ‘human face’. The comfort level in Pakistan should rise by a few notches at least.
Quite obviously, some well-informed source with access to a highly restricted ‘Top Secret’ document has shared the info with AP. It can only be a top-level Afghan source close to the leadership in Kabul or a foreign power (like the US) which has every business to know in real time what its puppet regime in Kabul is up to.
The AP report ostensibly ‘exposes’ two key officials in the Kabul set-up – Afghan intelligence chief Massoum Stanikzai and National Security Advisor Mohammed Haneef Atmar. Now, these are the two most important figures presiding over the Afghan intelligence apparatus. They are both President Ashraf Ghani’s trusted aides.
These Kabul elites happen to be drawn from the Pushtun tribes of the Ghilzai confederacy – to which Gulbuddin Hekmatyar also belongs – who today have a good grip on the levers of power. And both Stanikzai and Atmar are well-regarded by the US and NATO. (Both were trained in the UK – although Atmar also has a Soviet-era background in the Afghan intelligence.) Notably, the AP report makes sure that the image of these two spymasters is not tarnished.
Of course, the punch line comes at the end of AP report to the effect that the Taliban no longer insist on the vacation of US occupation of their country as a pre-condition for settlement. The remark is attributed to an erstwhile Taliban figure, Abdul Hakim Mujahid who is a fallen angel and now belongs to that exotic clan of what the Americans call the ‘Moderate Taliban.’ Mujahed’s remarks – and the earlier remarks by Anatol Lieven in the AP report – serve the purpose of highlighting that the Taliban are, in reality, a pragmatic lot who know the art of the possible in negotiations and with whom the international community can do business.
Equally, Lieven’s remark is hugely significant – namely, that the “existing elites” in the Kabul power structure will be loathed to share power with the Taliban or to accommodate the Taliban. Who could be these elites who stand in the way of reconciliation with the Taliban?
Indeed, there is much in all this that should provide food for thought for the Indian policymakers and the establishment commentators in Delhi. For a start, this entire business of counter-terrorism against the Taliban is rather phony, isn’t it? India should not take it too seriously that the US is interested in a fight against the Taliban who by no stretch of imagination pose a threat to America’s ‘homeland security’. At its core, what is happening in Afghanistan is a fratricidal strife in which external powers got involved for their own self-interests.
Two, any assumption that Trump is inviting India to play a major role in the Afghan endgame is laughable. Lieven’s remark on the political motives of Trump’s generals in raising the petard of India (namely, to hustle the Taliban and Pakistan) must be noted seriously in Delhi. Unfortunately, some Indian commentators have rushed to the judgment already that Trump’s Afghan strategy is a “game changer for Asia and an opportunity for India.” Nothing could be more far-fetched than such conclusions, which can only lead to India tagging along like an American poodle in the region.
Simply put, Trump wants India to put more money on the table – nothing more, nothing less. In Trump’s scheme of things, there is no military role in Afghanistan for India. The Americans know fully well that without getting Pakistan on board, no durable settlement in Afghanistan is possible. In fact, Pakistani Foreign Minister Asif Khawaja duly acknowledged this in his remarks to the Senate committee in Islamabad on Sunday.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline.