“Afghanistan is more than just a ‘graveyard of empires’. It is a mother of vicious circles” is what Maureen Dowd, the renowned columnist for the New York Times wrote about the country when George Bush first addressed the nation and explained how the US would respond to the 9/11 attacks.
Those words may have been journalistic rhetoric then but have now become a synopsis of the perpetual warfare that the region has endured. Be it the army of Darius the Great of Achaemenid Empire or the modern Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force of the US, all have seen their objectives stalled.
The latter realization has paved the way for the American establishment to initiate a protocol that would finally see it end its active armed involvement in the country. Conversely, that realization has come at a time when the US finds itself locked in behind-the-scenes tussle with China and cannot afford to be perceived as weak on the global stage. Enter Pakistan.
While the US seeks to preserve its unipolar hegemony, Pakistan seeks to mend its own domestic woes. Imran Khan probably spoke at length privately with Donald Trump about the areas that the US can directly help it in i.e. getting favorable terms on the IMF agreement, the FATF affair, the economic aid etc. Trump, however, chose to specify one; Kashmir. More importantly, he offered to assist Pakistan in addressing this pickle by acting as mediator between Pakistan and the other stakeholder in the Kashmir affair i.e. India.
Ever since Nehru promised a plebiscite under UN supervision, India’s official position has remained the same: Kashmir is a bilateral issue between the states of Pakistan and India. Since then, offers of mediation from Zhou Enlai, Nikita Khrushchev, and Ronald Reagan have all received a lukewarm response from India citing the overt dismissal of mediation as an option.
Bilaterally, both sides have played their parts in exertions to reach a deal acceptable to India, Pakistan and more importantly, Kashmiris. Be it the “cricket diplomacy” by Zia-ul-Haq and Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s or the Lahore-Delhi bus route that resulted in the Lahore Declaration. Pervez Musharraf went to his ancestral home in Delhi after nearly 60 years, being greeted by an old guard that recognized him. And yet, these efforts have borne no fruits with Zia dying tragically in a plane crash and Gandhi falling victim to a Tamil suicide bomber. Contrariwise, the Kargil fiasco derailed the goodwill generated owing to the Sharif-Vajpayee summit while Musharaf’s efforts croaked with the Indian parliament attacks.
However, the mood in Delhi seems to have become warmer with the current Indian government showing more affinity for mediation than any of its predecessors. It’s not essentially pragmatism at play rather a doctrine of necessity. India’s economic ambitions of matching China on the global stage rely heavily on creating a domestic market that can inspire investor confidence, both locally and globally. A scenario that’s virtually impossible for India unless it pacifies the Kashmiri question. Modi’s own rhetoric towards the country’s 200 million plus Muslims combined with the emerging tendency among the Kashmiri militants to take inspiration from the Afghan brand of Taliban has thawed Delhi’s indifferent attitude towards mediation.
In this game of triangular diplomacy, all parties have something to offer that the other parties want. For India, it’s the resolution in Kashmir to be mediated by the US. For its role as mediator and economic help, the US wants Pakistan to warrant three fundamental assurances i.e. implementation of constitutional law, getting the Taliban to negotiate with Ashraf Ghani, and the continued existence of the NDS and the 400,000 strong Afghan army.
The onus is now on the premier to deliver on all three fronts. These issues are further compounded in the face of the Taliban’s continued demand for absolute Islamic law and reservations at the existence of the present NDS and Afghan forces (most of whom were trained with the sole objective of fighting against the same Taliban). The Taliban have given indications that they’re willing to come to the negotiation table while the US may also show conformity in relation to their demands of Islamic law.
On face value, the visit by Imran Khan seems to be a success. Since the Pulwama attacks in early 2019, Modi has continually flaunted Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation as a major talking point. A talking point that may now very well come back to haunt him as Imran Khan continues his diplomatic tête-à-tête with China, Qatar, Iran, Russia, and the US.