By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Daily News
Colombo, July 16: A transformation in the security dynamics in South Asia is taking place at such a fast rate that experts on regional security are totally confused and puzzled about the future scenario.
The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the gradual expansion of Taliban’s control in the country, India’s alleged secret talks with Taliban leaders in the Middle East, Pakistan’s growing concerns and the wait-and-watch attitude of China and Russia have added to the bewilderment and reluctance to forecast an outcome.
The security partnership between India and Afghanistan took rapid strides in the last decade with the thawing of Indo-US relations. India has increased its logistical support and training opportunities to Afghanistan since the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement of 2011, which laid the basis for military cooperation between the Indian Army and the Afghan Security Forces (ASF). India provided equipment such as combat vehicles and field medical support facilities and trained Afghan officers under a ‘tailor-made’ course in Indian training institutions.
After an agreement reached during the visit of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to India in April 2015, India agreed to supply Cheetal helicopters and provide maintenance facilities to the MI-25 attack helicopters supplied earlier. Furthermore, the Indian Air Force trained about 200 pilots from Afghanistan. The two countries also signed a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) in order to strengthen intelligence cooperation and to improve collaboration in criminal matters.
Under these circumstances, India is in an influential position to play a role in the efforts to set up a coalition Government in Kabul to restore peace among diverse actors – the Ashraf Ghani regime, Opposition Leader Abdullah Abdullah and the Taliban and tribal chiefs. New Delhi has been supporting a national peace and reconciliation process which is Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled.
External Affairs Minister Dr. Subramaniam Jaishankar, who arrived in Dushanbe to participate in the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) met his Afghanistan counterpart Mohammad Haneef Atmar in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and discussed the situation in the war-torn country. The SCO has already set up a Contact Group on Afghanistan.
The SCO Contact Group meeting on Afghanistan assumes significance as it comes amidst growing global concerns over Taliban fighters rapidly seizing control of various areas in Afghanistan.
On July 14, India presented a three-point road map for an end state in Afghanistan, including cessation of violence and attacks, and a political dialogue for a settlement which ensures that countries in the region aren’t threatened by terrorism and extremism. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar presented the Indian view at the SCO Contact Group on Afghanistan in the Tajikistan capital. Against the backdrop of a sustained campaign by the Taliban to capture territory and border crossings, he said the world community is against the “seizure of power by violence and force” and wouldn’t “legitimize such actions.”
Earlier, India made a half-hearted denial on the alleged talks between Jaishankar and Taliban leaders during his transit stop through Qatar last week. However, India has, so far, not officially made a denial.
“We have seen social media reports claiming that the Indian External Affairs Minister has met certain Taliban leaders. Such reports are completely false, baseless and mischievous,” said official sources.
However, Sami Yousafzai, a well-known Afghan journalist, quoting Afghan Taliban sources said that the Indian External Affairs Minister had met with Taliban leader Mullah Baradar, head of the political office, along with Khairullah Khairkhwa and Shaikh Dilawar, both of them members of the Taliban negotiating team.
When journalists raised the issue at the weekly Indian External Affair Ministry media briefing and queried whether India was reaching out to the Taliban, the Ministry spokesperson did not directly respond to the query but stated that New Delhi has been “engaged with several stakeholders, including regional countries.”
Later, Qatar’s special envoy for counterterrorism and mediation of conflict resolution Mutlaq bin Majed Al Qahtani had mentioned during a webinar that there had been a “quiet visit by Indian officials from India to speak with the Taliban.”
India’s official policy has been to not recognize the Taliban in any way, with the Afghan government acknowledged as the only legitimate stakeholder in the war-ravaged country.
Meanwhile, M.K. Bhadrakumar, former top Indian diplomat, said the untimely remarks by External Affairs Minister Jaishankar on the situation in Afghanistan during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov did no good for his reputation as a scholar-diplomat with integrity or for India’s standing on the global stage as a responsible regional power.
Indian newspapers have quoted Jaishankar as saying, “Of course we are concerned at the direction of events in Afghanistan. The point right now we stress is that we must see a reduction in violence. Violence cannot be the solution for the situation in Afghanistan. At the end of the day, who governs Afghanistan has a legitimacy aspect. I think that is something which we cannot and should not ignore.”
Since when is it that India started losing sleep over the “legitimacy aspect” of other regimes? Bhadrakumar asked. “The legitimacy aspect is not even an issue in Afghanistan where the State withered away a long time ago. Take the legitimacy aspect of Ghani himself. The voter turnout in the 2019 election was roughly one million (in a country of 40 million.) At best, Ghani can claim he got somewhere around 500,000 votes in that rigged election, which was fiercely disputed by his opponent Abdullah Abdullah who felt embittered – and rightly so – that he was cheated out of victory,” the ex-diplomat said.
Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden met with Afghan leaders Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah at the White House last week to demonstrate a continuing US commitment to Afghanistan as US troops withdraw.
“The partnership between Afghanistan and the United States is not ending. Our troops are going to be leaving, but our support for Afghanistan is not ending,” Biden said after the meeting.
A few hundred of US troops will remain at the Kabul airport, potentially until September, to assist Turkish troops providing security there in what the US officials described as a temporary move until a more formal Turkey-led security operation is in place. Turkey has 500 soldiers in Afghanistan already as part of the NATO deployment and they will be reassigned to protect the airport, Turkey’s defense minister has said.
Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had discussed the airport security arrangement when the two met in Brussels on the sidelines of the NATO summit last month.
Sri Lanka cannot but be concerned about the current violence and instability in Afghanistan. Sri Lanka and Afghanistan have age-old ties and strong bilateral cooperation and the leadership of both nations are committed to continuing and further strengthening the friendship and bilateral relationship to mutually benefit both nations.
As Ambassador Ashraf Haidari said, the two democracies in South Asia enjoy fast-growing relations. “Shortly after his notable electoral victory in November 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and I had a very friendly and fruitful meeting, in which we conveyed to him the warm congratulations of President Ghani and his firm commitment to further expanding our bilateral relationship, which President Rajapaksa welcomed,” he said.
“We had a similar exchange with Prime Minister Rajapaksa, a committed friend of Afghanistan, following his landslide victory in last August’s general elections, on whose success President Ghani congratulated the people of Sri Lanka and welcomed the outcome as a major win for democracy in Sri Lanka and South Asia.”
The envoy was of the opinion that Afghanistan could learn from Sri Lanka as the country’s overall experience, including its mediated peace process during the war years, remains instructive.
Unlike Sri Lanka, however, Afghanistan is fighting multiple regional and global terrorist and criminal groups which operate under the umbrella of the Taliban.
“As we continue defending our country against external aggression, the Government of Afghanistan has pursued a path to peace through a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. The negotiating team of the Islamic Republic remains in Doha, continuing to wait for the Taliban to deliver on their key commitments that include a results-driven negotiating process and a notable reduction in violence across Afghanistan, followed by humanitarian and then permanent ceasefires in the country. And, of course, to foster post-conflict peace and prosperity, Afghanistan would certainly draw on international experience, including relevant lessons to be learned from Sri Lanka’s successful war-to-peace-transition, to implement effective peace-building programmes, including reintegration into society of former combatants, refugee-returnees and the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).”
When the preliminary talks to form the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) were held nearly four decades ago, peace-lovers expected it to grow and play a vital role in accelerating the economic growth and ensure peace and the stability of the region. But when SAARC was established in 1985, contentious issues like security were excluded from its agenda. The member states have used the SAARC summit meetings to informally discuss bilateral conflicts on the sidelines, especially during the ‘Retreat’.
SAARC has only few instruments for security cooperation. The Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism in 1987 remained toothless, because India and Pakistan could not even agree on a common definition of terrorism.
It is evident that the overall context of SAARC remains too weak for security cooperation to get a fresh impetus. There is a guarded expectation that the SCO Afghan Contact Group could arrive at an initiative to bring peace to Afghanistan and ensure regional peace and security. Failing which, it will be for the BIMSTEC to take an initiative before the simmering volcano in Afghanistan explodes.