Afghan Endgame

EVER since the United States and the NATO forces announced their withdrawal from Afghanistan by September this year, The Taliban’s march through the war-torn country has been gaining momentum. In recent weeks many more districts have fallen under Taliban control. The Taliban now rule roughly a third of all 421 districts and district centres in Afghanistan. On Sunday, the Taliban’s strides in Badakhshan province forced several hundred fleeing Afghan forces to cross over into Tajikistan.

This has created a grim situation. Afghanistan seems very likely edging towards yet another spell of a devastating civil war. And at the rate at which Taliban seem to be advancing, it looks but certain that they may once again take over the country in the near to medium term. And such a prospect could once again confront India and Pakistan with serious security challenges. One solution for this would have been for the two neighbours to talk to each other to resolve their issues. This would have included cooperating on Afghanistan. As of now, the two countries are working at cross-purposes. Pakistan wants a pro-Islamabad regime in Kabul to achieve its goal of strategic depth as a cushion against India. India, on the other hand, seeks a pro-New Delhi government to deny Pakistan this advantage.

There are several factors at play: One is the larger geopolitics of the region with the progress of the war in Afghanistan at its core. The unfolding situation in Kabul, where the Taliban are now dominant has suddenly reduced India’s capacity to influence the outcome in the country. Accordingly, Pakistan is suddenly in a greater position of leverage. The long-standing rivalry and suspicion between the two nations make the matters worse. It persuades them to act at cross-purposes in Kabul. And they would continue to do so until they reach an understanding between themselves.

It is in this context that the recent back-channel dialogue between them had raised some hopes. The dialogue had generated more hopes when the two countries reaffirmed their 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control in February. But ever since the talks seem to have unraveled. The two governments have obviously failed to act, consolidate and build upon the process. As things stand, this could only further complicate the security situation in the region. Hence the urgent need for them to return to engagement.

The challenge before the two countries is not only to establish a dialogue to address their mutual issues but also to bring their divergent policies and positions on Afghanistan in line. With stakes in Kabul getting bigger and bigger with every passing day, much hinges on how the neighbours are able to handle and steer their relationship in the weeks and months to come.

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