Afghan anxieties, India’s choices

Afghan anxieties, India’s choices

India faces an adverse geopolitical situation

Taliban’s acting Higher Education Minister Abdul Baqi Haqqani speaks during a consultative meeting on Taliban's general higher education policies at the Loya Jirga Hall in Kabul on August 29, 2021. Credit: AFP Photo

We need to make certain assumptions regarding Afghanistan since during these early days the situation remains confused. Whether it will settle in a couple of weeks or a couple of months remains to be seen, but Indian reactions are needed now rather than later.

The first assumption is that the Taliban will establish their rule, if not over the whole country, at least over enough of it to be considered the governing authority. The second assumption is that at least in the early stages, they will need wide international recognition and legitimacy, and they will not try to proceed alone, as they did 25 years ago when they were recognised only by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The third assumption is that due to this, they will conduct themselves with reasonable propriety, within the framework of Sharia law, and distance themselves from the fanatics who ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The major problem is the presence of the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other Islamist militants. The malign Haqqani Network is very much part of the Taliban leadership.

Reference to the Taliban of 25 to 20 years ago is relevant because the Indian experience – when, too, the BJP was in power – was highly negative. The Taliban were considered an adjunct of the Pakistani army, suspected of terror activities in Kashmir, and they were involved in the Pakistani hijacking of an Indian plane which ended in Kandahar. Old memories lead to deep suspicions and aversion of the Taliban.

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India faces an adverse geopolitical situation. It was comfortable with the US and NATO attacks on the Taliban after 2001 and the US/NATO presence in Afghanistan thereafter, but the Americans have now departed. India has spent about $3 billion on civil infrastructure in Afghanistan for the benefit of the Afghan people, which is at risk of destruction or misuse. The Taliban leadership has been touring world capitals such as Doha, Moscow, Istanbul, Tehran, Beijing and Islamabad recently, but was based in Pakistan, which was instrumental in bringing them to the Doha talks with the US, at which we were not present.

The Taliban practice orthodox Sunni Islam which, with the support of Pakistan to it, might have implications for India, especially in Muslim-majority Kashmir. There are hints that India has been in touch with the Taliban, but the Talibs were never invited to Delhi whereas they have been to all other regional capitals. We withdrew our embassy totally within hours of the Taliban takeover although all the other regional players and Russia remained in Kabul and held discussions with the Taliban. This places us at a serious disadvantage.

Given the three assumptions, what are our options? The US presumed over the past two years that the Taliban would form the Afghan government. The Doha talks were predicated on that assumption, but we remained unprepared for the Taliban takeover. The supposed resistance in Afghanistan is wishful thinking and it will get nowhere without external support, which is doubtful. The Afghans only want peace after the endless war since 1980. Will the US invest again in the same merry-go-round? The threat to the Taliban will be from even more extreme militants, and countries may back the Taliban against the IS, al-Qaeda and other terrorists. For this, the Taliban will need foreign intelligence and material help.

The second assumption concerned legitimacy. Diplomatic practice is that a group that controls the major part of any country is recognised, and the Taliban ‘emirate’ will qualify. No one has recognised the Taliban so far, but there are hints that recognition from China, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey and Russia may be forthcoming. Paradoxically, the Taliban may be helped by the IS terror bombing in garnering support.

Western countries and the UN will wait until assurances by the Taliban of peace, inclusivity and human rights are implemented. From India’s viewpoint, there is no urgency, and we can wait; probably, the Taliban will not expect early Indian recognition.

The third assumption was that the Taliban would present a civilised front provided it is able to control its foot-soldiers, because it knows that legitimacy depends on this, and so do aid flows. China, Qatar and Pakistan alone cannot attend to the hunger, health and social problems of Afghanistan’s abject poverty.

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The past is never a good guide to the future. We have to forget what happened when the Taliban was last in power and judge whether engagement with them serves our interests. We do not need to trust the Taliban, but to observe their behaviour. We have relations with countries that have deplorable records, and we are not angels ourselves. It was a mistake to close our embassy. We need to be there in Kabul as the richest, strongest SAARC country, and Afghanistan is a SAARC member. Indians are the most popular foreigners for Afghan people because we never tried to dominate or oppress them.

We should open a discussion with the Taliban on our interests and expectations, and their intentions. Pakistan is the most influential country now, but this will not last forever. There is no reason to abdicate our space to the Pakistanis or the Chinese. India’s opinion is important, its decisions are important. We cannot influence events by watching events from afar. We need to be in Kabul, have discussions with the Taliban and observe events on the spot. We have embassies in many other dangerous places, and Kabul was probably our best-protected embassy. We need to return to bilateral business as soon as possible. Our flag must fly in Afghanistan. This is not possible without having dealings with the Taliban.

(The writer is a former foreign secretary)

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