‘If the Taliban were to be in a position of power following an [Afghan political] settlement, Pakistan’s longstanding goal of a pro-Pakistan, anti-India Afghan government would be achieved.'
‘The American and Indian security interests continue to be sharply aligned in Asia. And no US visit by Imran Khan, no matter how successful it may have been, can alter that calculus,’ says Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director, Asia Programme, and South Asia Senior Associate at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC, and a leading specialist on India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and their relationship with the United States.
In the concluding part of his interview, he tells Rediff.com’s Archana Masih, that India is a perfect security ally for the US -- and an Afghan political settlement that leaves the Taliban in a position of power would be a blow to Indian strategic interests. But it would not necessarily pose as grave a security threat for India as some commentators may fear.
Do you think the Imran Khan-Donald Trump summit in Washington has in any way downgraded India’s importance as America’s security partner in the region?
Not at all. For all the successes of the visit, it was just that -- a visit. And from the US perspective, it simply served to solidify the rather unspectacular status quo in US-Pakistan relations: A partnership that largely revolves around working together to get a peace deal in Afghanistan.
Additionally, Washington’s strategic calculus about India hasn’t changed. It continues to be viewed as a critical partner in Asia to help push back against China -- a nation that the Trump administration regards not just as a strategic competitor, but as a top national security threat.
US foreign policy is largely dominated by its efforts to push back against what it views as a China threat. And India, with its similar rivalry with China and similar policy toward Asia (its Act East policy is quite convergent with Washington’s Indo-Pacific policy), is perceived by Washington as the perfect partner to help pursue that goal.
The fact of the matter is that American and Indian security interests continue to be sharply aligned in Asia. And no US visit by Imran Khan, no matter how successful it may have been, can alter that calculus.
Is America’s current infatuation with Pakistan limited to the Afghan issue? Is there any possibility that Washington will enlist Rawalpindi to improve its relations with Beijing?
I’m not sure ‘infatuation’ is the right word here; that suggests a level of open-ended admiration that is most certainly lacking in US perceptions of Pakistan (indeed, despite all the effusive praise dished out to Imran Khan, many US officials continue to harbour jaded and sceptical views about Pakistan).
Still, it’s true that Washington is flirting with Islamabad once again, and indeed the impetus is Afghanistan. This shouldn’t be a surprise; for years, US officials have looked at the US relationship with Pakistan through the lens of Afghanistan.
Recall the 1980s, when the United States strengthened its relationship with Islamabad in order to get Pakistani cooperation in efforts to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
More recently, when the US-Pakistan relationship took a plunge during the Obama era, one key reason was America’s growing frustration with Pakistan’s refusal to go after the terrorists on its soil that targeted American troops in Afghanistan.
And now, it’s Trump’s fervent desire to get a deal with the Taliban that has compelled Washington to embrace the Pakistanis once again.
To be sure, counterterrorism is the other main pillar of the US-Pakistan relationship, from the Trump administration’s perspective. But this has now been downgraded in priority.
And at any rate, the CT issue remains a sore spot and a point of tension for bilateral relations; Washington isn’t convinced that Islamabad’s recent rounding up of militants represents the ‘irreversible’ steps that America is looking for.
The Trump administration has left open the possibility of broadening its relationship with Islamabad if there is progress on peace in Afghanistan and CT.
But at the end of the day, I don’t think you have enough buy-in or bandwidth in Washington to contemplate much less pursue a deeper, broader partnership with Islamabad, along the lines of what was attempted (unsuccessfully) during the early years of the Obama administration.
As someone who is keen observer of Afghanistan, do you think the Trump Administration is almost callous in its refusal to see what a Taliban regime would do to everyday life in Afghanistan, especially for its women?
I don’t think it’s callous, but I do think it’s dismissive. Let’s be very clear: President Trump fervently seeks a peace deal in Afghanistan, and so considerations about the plight of women and the Afghan general population on the whole pale in comparison to the imperative of getting an agreement with the Taliban that gives Trump the political cover he needs to announce a troop withdrawal.
To its credit, the Trump administration has pushed hard for the inclusion of an intra-Afghan dialogue, which is meant to ensure that the treatment of women is an agenda point in eventual negotiations with the Taliban about a political settlement.
Still, one of the biggest question marks about the current peace process is whether the Taliban, after signing a troop withdrawal deal with Washington, would be willing to lay down arms and negotiate a comprehensive settlement with Afghan stakeholders, or if it would simply wait for Washington’s departure and plan to overthrow the Afghan government with force.
US negotiators have insisted they won’t pull any troops until the Taliban has agreed to a ceasefire and started negotiating with Kabul. But given Trump’s impatience to head for the exits, the US may not be in a position to wait for very long.
And to be sure, if the US heads for the exits before there is a political settlement that ends the war, then Afghans -- and particularly women -- would have a whole lot to worry about.
Do you think the Taliban would be amenable to being a mere component of the ruling enclave in Kabul given its grandiose ambitions of ruling the country by itself again?
This is a big question, to be sure. One of the fundamental questions about the Taliban leadership is whether they would be willing to share power within a political system that they have long rejected.
Would the Taliban be willing to have a change of heart, in order to get a share of the power that it has long coveted?
Or would it double down and insist that it will only rule in a system governed by the harsh interpretations of Islamic law that it has long espoused?
In other words, will the Taliban’s actions be dictated by longstanding ideological principles or by considerations of realpolitik?
There are some analysts that study the Taliban who insist that the insurgents have undergone a shift in recent years, led by a new and younger generation of Taliban leaders, and that they have become a more moderate and inclusionary force.
This suggests they would be willing to govern within a system that the Taliban’s hardliners have long rejected.
But here, there are more questions: Would the Taliban’s more moderate new guard be willing to stand up to the hardliners?
Would there be a split among the Taliban on the issue of power sharing? And if so, what would that mean for the peace process?
The fact that there are so many questions that are so hard to answer amplifies just how fraught and complex the current reconciliation process is -- and how, despite major forward movement in recent weeks, there are still great challenges ahead.
What can India expect from an Afghan settlement that includes Pakistan and its proxy, the Taliban? Will it bring, as one commentator wrote on Rediff, ‘the barbarians to India’s gates’?
The short answer is that there’s a lot for India to be worried about.
If the Taliban were to be in a position of power following a settlement, Pakistan’s longstanding goal of a pro-Pakistan, anti-India Afghan government would be achieved.
India’s relations with Afghanistan, which have been so strong for many years, would take a major tumble. And a galvanised Pakistan could potentially use Afghanistan as a base to cultivate India-focused terror groups like Lashkar-e-Tayiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.
All this said, it may not be quite this bad. If the Taliban were to renounce ties to terrorist groups—which a troop withdrawal deal with the US would theoretically require -- then the likes of LeT and JeM would struggle a bit more to carve out sanctuaries in Afghanistan, and Pakistan would struggle a bit more to facilitate their activities in Afghanistan.
Additionally, if we take the Taliban at its word and accept that it represents a local insurgency seeking an Islamic government in Afghanistan and nothing more, then it shouldn’t be viewed as a threat to India.
Indeed, the Taliban may be an anti-India force, but it has never staged attacks outside of Afghanistan, and most of its attacks in Afghanistan -- with some Haqqani Network-patented exceptions -- have targeted Afghan and NATO troops.
All this is to say that an Afghan political settlement that leaves the Taliban in a position of power would be a blow to Indian strategic interests. But it would not necessarily pose as grave a security threat for India as some commentators may fear.