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India-Pakistan rivalry jeopardizes Afghan peace process

Shamil Shams
May 18, 2020

While Kabul blames the Taliban for last week's hospital attack, Washington accuses the "Islamic State" (IS). Now some sections in Pakistan are claiming that India is using IS to derail the Afghan peace process.

Kabul hospital attack
Image: Reuters

India and Pakistan have long clashed in Afghanistan to gain influence in the war-ravaged country, and the bitter rivals regularly accuse each other of supporting militant groups to this effect.

After the US and the Taliban in February signed a landmark agreement in Doha to end the 19-year-long Afghan war, Islamabad was hopeful that the future of Afghan politics would allow a bigger role for groups that Pakistan has backed for decades.

Read more: Afghanistan: Taliban prisoner exchange an 'important step,' says US envoy

Analysts dubbed the US-Taliban deal a blow to New Delhi, which has increased its clout in Afghanistan since the US toppled the Pakistan-backed Taliban regime in 2001.

But the US-Taliban Doha deal has yet to show results. President Ashraf Ghani's government and the Taliban still don't trust each other; initially squabbling over the release of Taliban prisoners, and then blaming each other for last week's deadly attack against a Doctors Without Border's hospital in Kabul.

At least 13 people — including two infants — were killed in in the attack on Dasht-e-Barchi Hospital, and 15 others were wounded, officials said.

The Afghan government blamed the Taliban for the attack, with Ghani ordering Afghan forces to resume an aggressive operation against the militant group. The Taliban denied involvement in the assault, and the US blamed the "Islamic State" (IS), a militant group rivaling the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Some sections of the Pakistani military establishment said the Kabul hospital attack was an Indian ploy to sabotage the Afghan peace process. Now, the Taliban have also reportedly pointed fingers at India.

Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban's chief negotiator, said Sunday that India has always supported traitors in Afghanistan.

"India has always played a negative role in Afghanistan. India supported traitors in the country," Stanikzai said in an interview, according to Hashim Wahdatyar, former director at the US-based NGO Institute of Current World Affairs.

Afghanistan's  Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) swiftly rejected Taiban's claim.

"India is one of the biggest donor countries and has helped Afghanistan in development and reconstruction areas, we appreciate their cooperation. We expect India and other neighboring countries to play a significant role in the Afghan peace process," Gran Hewad, a spokesperson for MoFA, said in a statement.

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India's role in Afghanistan

"India has heavily invested in Afghanistan and is now pursing an aggressive policy to protect its interests there," Sabookh Syed, an Islamabad-based journalist, told DW.

"India is following Pakistan's tactic of backing groups in Afghanistan, and in this case, IS. This prompted the US to send a message to New Delhi that India should pursue direct talks with the Taliban," Syed added.

Although Washington has blamed IS for the Kabul attack, the militant group, which is also active in Syria and Iraq, has yet to claim responsibility.

"US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo categorically told President Ghani that IS, not the Taliban, perpetrated the attack. Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) is supporting IS to protect its interests," said Syed.

Earlier this month, Zalmay Khalilzad, US Special Representative for Afghanistan, visited India, and reportedly urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to support the Doha deal.

"India is an important force in Afghanistan, and it would be appropriate for that [India-Taliban] engagement to take place," Khalilzad told The Hindu newspaper.

Read more: Afghan peace process: Is Washington running out of patience?

India has so far been reluctant to engage with the Taliban as it considers the group, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, to be a Pakistan-sponsored organization.

"The US-Taliban deal is widely seen in India as a victory for the Taliban and Pakistan," Sudha Ramachandran, a Bangalore-based analyst on South Asian political and security issues, told DW.

"The Doha agreement deals a deadly blow to the international community's reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. It is a setback not only for Afghanistan, but also for India's security concerns and interests. The deal has boosted the morale of jihadist groups operating in [India-administered] Kashmir," she added.

Sudha is of the opinion that India needs to open channels of communication with the Taliban. "This, of course, would not be an endorsement of the Taliban's ideology, but a reflection of the emerging reality in Afghanistan."

Taliban proximity to Pakistan

Amar Sinha, former Indian envoy to Kabul, told The Hindu newspaper in an interview that New Delhi must not give the Taliban legitimacy until the group joins intra-Afghan talks. Sinha also hailed the power-sharing agreement between President Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abudllah.

"Despite all the fighting and the rival factions, the Afghan leadership has shown once again, its ability to come together when that is needed the most. We saw this in 2009, and again in 2014 after elections brought fractured mandates. And this time, too, it is heartening to see the efforts of Mr. Ghani, Mr. Abdullah, and other leaders to effect a compromise. One shouldn’t overlook this development. It is a positive development, certainly," Sinha said.

Indian authorities believe that a strong government in Kabul could ward off Pakistan's threat to Afghanistan. New Delhi, however, is still reluctant to reach out to the Taliban.

"India is skeptical of the Taliban's relationship with Pakistan," Hekmatullah Azamy, deputy director at the Kabul-based Centre for Conflict and Peace studies, told DW.

Read more: US-Taliban deal: How Pakistan's 'Islamist support' finally paid off

Indian analysts say that New Delhi's concerns about Taliban-backed terror groups were not addressed in the February deal.

"Despite US-Taliban negotiations and the Doha deal, the Taliban have continued to work closely with anti-Indian groups, particularly Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. I don't see a lot of room for cooperation between India and the Taliban," Azamy said.

More chaos to follow

India also fears that after the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, it will be left to fend for itself in the country.

"India is aware that it has to fight its own battles. When the intra-Afghan dialogue starts, India will have to support those groups that view it in a positive light," Professor Harsh V Pant, head of the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation, told DW.

Read more: US troops begin withdrawal from Afghanistan

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, believes that the imminent departure of US troops from Afghanistan could destabilize the region.

"The Taliban will emerge stronger. This would make India more likely, through covert means, to try to protect its interests there. And since India and Pakistan are bitter rivals, anything that New Delhi seeks to do in Afghanistan will be seen by Islamabad as a net negative."

The analyst believes that New Delhi's best option is to be in close contact with Washington and Kabul to ensure it is kept up to speed on where things are going, and to convey its various inputs and expectations regarding the peace and reconciliation process.

Additional reporting by Dharvi Vaid and Syed Fazl-e-Haider.

Life under Taliban rule in Afghanistan's Kunar province

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