The United States’ Special Representative for Afghanistan, Richard Olson, met with Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, ahead of a key meeting scheduled for next week of the four-nation group seeking to bring about an end to conflict between Afghanistan and the Taliban, Indian government sources said.
An Indian government official familiar with the talks said their discussion centred on evolving a regional strategy to back the 170,000-strong Afghan army, which suffered a record 5,500 dead and 14,000 injured last year.
Next week’s meeting of the so-called quadrilateral, made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States, comes among growing pessimism that Islamabad will deliver on long-standing promises to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table — the keystone of the international community’s efforts to end the conflict.
Faced with Taliban rejection of negotiations, and an offensive that has claimed swathes of territory, Afghanistan has been calling on regional states, including India, to step up supplies of military aid. India has so far supplied four Mi35 assault helicopters, as well as three light helicopters, but Afghanistan hopes for An32 medium-transports, as well as artillery and logistics equipment.
“The casualties the Afghan military has suffered are staggering”, said Lieutenant-General RK Sawhney, an analyst at the New Delhi-based Vivekananda International Foundation. “By way of comparison, it is as if a corps and a half in Jammu and Kashmir, out of the three corps India has there, had suffered these kinds of losses”.
“It is remarkable that the Afghan army has continued to fight”, General Sawhney said, “but it will need long-term assistance from neighbours like India, who will also suffer serious consequences if the country collapses”.
The United States military presence in Afghanistan is scheduled to fall from 9,800 at present to 5,500 by the start of 2017 — further eroding the training of troops, and the ability to provide them with logistical assistance.
In the months after he took power, President Ashraf Ghani had staked his political legitimacy on promises by Pakistan to push the Taliban into talks, but hopes have waned with the Islamist insurgency repeatedly rejecting calls to come to the table. However, hopes have waned that Islamabad is committed to a power-sharing deal involving the Taliban, as the insurgent group has registered its most significant territorial gains since 2001.
“Everyone agrees that a political settlement will at the end of the day be necessary to bring about an end to the Afghan conflict”, a senior United States official said. “However, there isn’t much reason for an over-abundance of optimism that this will happen”.
Last month, hopes rose after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Foreign Policy Advisor, Sartaj Aziz, broke with decades of denial that the Taliban leadership was in the country, and said the government had “restricted their movements, restricted their access to hospitals and other facilities, and threatened them that ‘If you don’t come forward and talk, we will at least expel you’”.
The Taliban had been told, he said, that “we have hosted [them] enough for 35 years, and we can’t do it anymore because the whole world is blaming us just by [their] presence here”.
In the days after that declaration, though, a hoped-for meeting between the Taliban and Afghan officials failed to materialise, with the insurgents rejecting any direct dialogue until multiple preconditions were met.
Taliban chief Aktar Muhammad Mansoor, who operates out of the Pakistani city of Quetta, has in the meanwhile consolidated his authority, bringing on board the eldest son and a brother of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the group’s founding leader. Mullah Omar was revealed, last year, to have died over two years ago — sparking large-scale rifts within the insurgent leadership.
Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund, a brother of Mullah Omar, was named head of the Taliban’s Preaching and Guidance Commission, while Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub, his eldest son, was named military chief for operations in 15 provinces.
“Both of the new officials of Islamic Emirate were given advise [sic] by the Amir ul Mumineen [the Commander of the Faithful, the title for Mullah Mansour] who later prayed to Allah Almighty for their success in their current duties,” a Taliban statement said.
The Indian Express