A way out of the morass

The U.S.’s plan to pull out of Afghanistan is an ap­pro­pri­ate time to re-ex­am­ine the idea of en­abling its neu­tral­ity

The Hindu - - EDITORIAL - C.R. Gharekhan & Hamid An­sari

In an ar­ti­cle pub­lished in (Ed­i­to­rial page, “Another ap­proach to Afghanistan”, De­cem­ber 24, 2003), we had suggested that the only way out of the morass in Afghanistan would be to re-place Afghanistan in its tra­di­tional mode of neu­tral­ity. For that, two things were es­sen­tial. The Afghans them­selves must de­clare un­equiv­o­cally that they would fol­low strict neu­tral­ity in their re­la­tions with ex­ter­nal pow­ers, and the out­side pow­ers must com­mit them­selves to re­spect Afghanistan’s neu­tral­ity. In other words, ex­ter­nal pow­ers must sub­scribe to a mul­ti­lat­eral dec­la­ra­tion not to in­ter­fere in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of Afghanistan to­gether with an obli­ga­tion on Afghanistan not to seek out­side in­ter­ven­tion in its in­ter­nal sit­u­a­tion.

We fur­ther put for­ward the idea that the agree­ment on the Neu­tral­ity of Laos, con­cluded in 1962, could pro­vide a model for the neu­tral­i­sa­tion of Afghanistan. The present might be an ap­pro­pri­ate time to re­visit that pro­posal.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has an­nounced his de­ci­sion to re­duce Amer­i­can troop strength in Afghanistan, 14,000 at present, by half. Though Mr. Trump has not laid down a dead­line for this re­duc­tion, it is safe to as­sume that he will make this hap­pen well in time be­fore the next U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 2020.

This devel­op­ment has en­er­gised

Hindu The

the prin­ci­pal stake­hold­ers in Afghanistan to make cal­cu­lated ef­forts to place them­selves in as favourable a po­si­tion as pos­si­ble in an Afghanistan post-Amer­i­can with­drawal. In­dia should also be think­ing of what steps it should take to pro­tect its in­ter­ests in that sit­u­a­tion.

En­gage with the Tal­iban

One thing that should al­ready have been done and must be done is to en­gage in di­a­logue with the Tal­iban. There is no doubt that the Tal­iban will be a ma­jor player in the pol­i­tics of Afghanistan in the com­ing months and years. They al­ready con­trol more than 50% of the coun­try and are get­ting stronger and bolder by the day. They are also en­gaged in di­rect talks with China, Rus­sia, the Cen­tral Asian states and oth­ers. The Amer­i­cans, rep­re­sented by for­mer diplo­mat Zal­may Khalilzad, have be­gun sus­tained di­a­logue with the Tal­iban. The Tal­iban have re­fused to talk to the Kabul govern­ment so far, but as and when the Amer­i­cans pull out, as they are jus­ti­fied in do­ing for rea­sons of their own na­tional in­ter­est, they might agree to en­gage with the Ashraf Ghani govern­ment. In any fu­ture sce­nario, the Tal­iban are guar­an­teed to play an im­por­tant, per­haps even a de­ci­sive role in the gov­ern­ing struc­tures of the coun­try.

New Delhi has so far re­frained from es­tab­lish­ing for­mal con­tacts with the Tal­iban out of sen­si­tiv­ity for the Kabul govern­ment not want­ing to talk di­rectly to the Tal­iban as long as the Tal­iban refuse to ac­knowl­edge its le­git­i­macy. How­ever, In­dia must look af­ter its own in­ter­ests. Will a Tal­iban-dom­i­nated govern­ment in Kabul nec­es­sar­ily pose a se­ri­ous se­cu­rity threat to us? While we are in no po­si­tion to pre­vent such an even­tu­al­ity, we would have alien­ated the Tal­iban by re­fus­ing to talk to them dur­ing the present phase. Even Iran, a Shia regime, has es­tab­lished of­fi­cial di­a­logue with the Tal­iban, a staunchly Sunni move­ment. It would not be dif­fi­cult for our agen­cies to es­tab­lish con­tacts that would fa­cil­i­tate ini­ti­at­ing an of­fi­cial di­a­logue with Tal­iban; if needed, Iran could help in this even if it might dis­please the Amer­i­cans. Af­ter all, the Amer­i­cans have not al­ways been sen­si­tive to our con­cerns, in Afghanistan or else­where and Mr. Trump has pub­licly shown un­aware­ness of our sub­stan­tial devel­op­ment as­sis­tance to it.

A re­gional com­pact

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity ought to, at the same time, think of how to es­tab­lish a mech­a­nism which might of­fer a rea­son­able op­por­tu­nity to the Afghan peo­ple to live in peace, free from ex­ter­nal in­ter­fer­ence. And per­haps the only way in which this could be done is to pro­mote a re­gional com­pact among all the neigh­bour­ing coun­tries as well as rel­e­vant ex­ter­nal pow­ers, and with the en­dorse­ment of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, to com­mit them­selves not to in­ter­fere in Afghanistan’s in­ter­nal af­fairs. The most im­por­tant coun­try in this re­gard is Pak­istan. Pak­istan is highly sus­pi­cious, per­haps with­out any ba­sis, of In­dia’s role in Afghanistan. A mul­ti­lat­eral pact, with In­dia sub­scrib­ing to it, ought to al­lay, to some ex­tent at least, Pak­istan’s ap­pre­hen­sions. In­dia will need to talk to China about co­op­er­at­ing in Afghanistan; Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi al­ready agreed in Wuhan, in April 2018, on work­ing on joint projects there.

Pak­istan should have no ob­jec­tion to for­mally agree­ing to Afghanistan’s neu­tral­ity. There is the most rel­e­vant prece­dent of the Bi­lat­eral Agree­ment on the Prin­ci­ples of Mu­tual Re­la­tions, in par­tic­u­lar on Non-in­ter­fer­ence and Non-in­ter­ven­tion, signed in Geneva in 1988 between Pak­istan and Afghanistan. In that agree­ment, the par­ties un­der­took, in­ter alia, to re­spect the right of the other side to de­ter­mine its po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and cul­ture sys­tem with­out in­ter­fer­ence in any form; to re­frain from over throw­ing or chang­ing the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem of the other side; to en­sure that its ter­ri­tory was not used to vi­o­late the sovereignty, etc of the other side, to pre­vent within its ter­ri­tory the train­ing, etc of mer­ce­nar­ies from what­ever ori­gin for the pur­pose of hos­tile ac­tiv­i­ties against the other side.

As a doc­u­ment on non-in­ter­fer­ence, it could hardly be im­proved upon. Pak­istan prob­a­bly would agree to a doc­u­ment with Afghanistan in whose gover­nance its pro­tégé, the Tal­iban, will play an im­por­tant role, which would broadly be sim­i­lar to the one it had con­cluded with an Afghan regime which it did not ap­prove of.

The Bonn Agree­ment of 2001, which made Hamid Karzai the in­terim chief of Afghan govern­ment, con­tains a re­quest to the United Na­tions and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to ‘guar­an­tee’ non-in­ter­fer­ence in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of Afghanistan, a re­quest not acted upon so far.

Some con­cerns

A re­gional pact on non-in­ter­fer­ence and non-in­ter­ven­tion ought to be wel­comed by all the re­gional states. Rus­sia has rea­son to worry about a lack of sta­bil­ity in Afghanistan be­cause of its con­cerns re­gard­ing a spread of rad­i­cal­ism as well as the drug men­ace. China has even stronger con­cerns, given the sit­u­a­tion in its western-most re­gion. The U.S. might have ap­pre­hen­sions about China en­trench­ing it­self in strate­gi­cally im­por­tant Afghanistan, but there is lit­tle it can do about it; a re­gional agree­ment on non-in­ter­fer­ence might give the U.S. at least some com­fort.

It is early days to con­clude whether the sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan has en­tered its end game. In any case, it would be pru­dent to as­sume that the U.S. will def­i­nitely leave Afghanistan in the next two years, likely to be fol­lowed by other western coun­tries. No other coun­try will of­fer to put boots on the ground, nor should they; cer­tainly not In­dia. The only al­ter­na­tive is to think of some ar­range­ment along the lines we have suggested. May be, there are other ideas; we would wel­come them.

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