India in tango with Taliban, what's next?

There is a perception in anti-Taliban Afghan circles that India has made peace with the Taliban for its selfish security interests
Last Updated : 20 August 2022, 07:37 IST
Last Updated : 20 August 2022, 07:37 IST

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Ten months after withdrawing its diplomats from Kabul in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, India in June this year sent a “technical team” to reopen its embassy in the capital of the conflict-ravaged country. India’s decision has been by and large received favourably within India and abroad as a belated, but pragmatic recognition of the ‘reality’. There has been some degree of consternation in anti-Taliban Afghan opposition and liberal circles in India over New Delhi’s perceived betrayal of democracy and human rights in Afghanistan and its apparent embrace of the ‘terrorist’ Taliban, which it had until recently kept at a distance even when the others were courting and legitimising it. The reopening of the Embassy of India in Kabul was justified in unexceptionable terms of maintaining people-to-people ties with a close historical and civilisational neighbour and the need to deliver and monitor distribution of aid in response to a desperate humanitarian situation Afghanistan has plunged into as a result of the Taliban military takeover on August 15, 2021 – internal conflict, a prolonged drought and earthquakes that struck Khost and Paktia.

Like China, Russia, Iran, European Union and most Central Asian Republics, which maintained or re-opened diplomatic missions in Kabul, India has balanced this decision by sticking to the international consensus on not recognising the Taliban regime formally. But such protestations notwithstanding, it can hardly be denied that the world, and India, is ready to live with the Taliban in Afghanistan ‘unofficially’, for a lack of a viable alternative, notwithstanding their egregious and unacceptable treatment of women, minorities and those associated with the Islamic Republic especially the security personnel.

New Delhi proceeded with the reopening of its diplomatic mission in Kabul, despite a senseless terrorist attack on the already depleted Afghan Sikh community at Kart-e-Parwan gurudwara in Kabul on June 18 claimed by the Islamic State of Khorasan. The attack was seen as an indirect warning to India.

India not only sent 36000 MT wheat to Afghanistan through Pakistan, but also despatched medicines and Covid-19 vaccines to the country in the past 12 months after the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021. It also appears to be ready to accept the Taliban’s request to resume its development projects in Afghanistan. The Ariana and Kam Air flights from Kabul to Delhi have resumed although there are few passengers in the absence of visa services. The much trumpeted people-to-people ties exist for now only on paper for lack of visas. Ironically, it is the liberal, most pro-India constituency in Afghanistan that are its greatest victims.

The almost anodyne reasons for the resumption of relations albeit in a carefully calibrated manner of course mask several ironies, contradictions and complexities in India’s relationship with Afghanistan encompassing both the Islamic Republican opposition and the Taliban. First is the profound irony of a Hindu nationalist government backed by anti-Muslim radicals, who equate Islam with terrorism, dealing with easily the most radical and repressive Islamic regime in the world that has used suicide terrorism to come into power and has no compunction in reassuring the former that it has no religious or political agenda in India, including in Kashmir. The answer to this lies firstly in India’s positive image among the Afghans in general for India's friendship and development assistance over the last 20 years and Pashtuns in particular who have special historic ties with India as traders. There is also a barely concealed urge in the Taliban to get out of the grip of the Pakistani military establishment.

The second is the sheer contradiction between the professed rationale of protecting historic, civilisational and people-to-people ties and restricting all such associations barring humanitarian (and now possibly development) assistance by the virtual denial of visas to even the most persecuted and desperate. An emergency e-visa scheme announced with some fanfare to compensate for a wholesale cancellation of previously issued visas to Afghan at the time of the closure of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, is virtually dead with only a few scores approved. Hundreds of Afghan students pursuing higher education in India who had returned to Afghanistan temporarily due to the Covid-19 pandemic, remain stranded, unable to continue their degrees although those in India have been helped.

Public demonstrations and official representations through the Taliban government to facilitate visas for the continuation of their studies in India have not yet borne fruit, leading to disappointment and frustration among those most attached to India. An initial reference in a Press Release to resuming consular services was subsequently quietly dropped. The reasons for this reluctance may lie in concerns over security and a valid apprehension that if visas are resumed at a time when the rest of the world has virtually turned its back on Afghans, it could open a floodgate of applications that would be difficult to handle. But given the swiftness with which Afghan Sikhs and Hindus were evacuated while others have been ignored, the suspicion that it may lie in the thinking behind the Citizenship Amendment Act, hovers heavily overhead. It is a policy that will alienate India’s friends in Afghanistan and make Pakistan happy.

The third is a chronic tension between India’s historic commitment to basic freedoms, democracy, rights of women and minorities and its relationship with the repressive and fundamentalist Taliban and the republican and armed opposition. India’s commitment to democratic values has always been subject to geopolitical pressures and choices as we have seen in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Afghanistan (1979) and most recently in Ukraine. But there has also been a secular evolution in India’s responses to libertarian movements in the neighbourhood that has over time prioritised a forced stability over freedom, epitomised by the reverses it suffered supporting democracy in Myanmar and Tamil political aspirations within Sri Lanka in the 1980-90s. It may also apply to Afghanistan today. Nevertheless, it is highly doubtful if the Taliban can provide such stability and security, let alone governance, under present conditions in Afghanistan today. At the same time, a victory for the resistance seems far away and almost certainly dependent on some external intervention, which too is invisible.

There is a perception in anti-Taliban Afghan circles that India has made peace with the Taliban for its selfish security interests at the expense of its constitutional values and principles and friends over the last 20 years and relegated the republican centre that it nurtured for the last 25 years to the margins. This would be a premature conclusion. The fact is that India was the last country to hold out for the Islamic Republic when every other ‘friend’ of Afghanistan had started dealings with the Taliban, only joined the heavily skewed Doha process with the intra-Afghan talks, and took close to 10 months before resuming official relations with a strategically important country for it at a very modest level when no effective internal resistance or international support for it was in sight. Given the nature of the Hindu right government in Delhi and the radical Islamic Taliban, it is difficult to see this relationship as anything but tactical and circumstantial. If conditions change, this could just as easily turn around.

But there is also some validity to that feeling of betrayal. Some of the outreach to the Taliban is well-intentioned – providing humanitarian aid, the need to keep in touch with those left behind in Afghanistan, a desire to continue to develop its political capital with the Afghan people through development projects, having ears and eyes on the ground, preserving its age-old ties and distancing itself from a past regime tainted by elitism and corruption. But much of it can also be attributed to real-politics – protecting security interests, monitoring differences within the Taliban, exploiting fissures between sections of the Taliban and Pakistan, and playing the new ‘Great Game’ that now involves China too. To this end, it has kept quiet even when Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahari was eliminated by a US drone attack in an upscale quarter of Kabul although it has now come to light that he has been living there under the protective eyes of the Haqqanis. Contrary to what moralists, liberals and Afghan exiles may feel about these, such realism is inherent in relationships that are as vital to India’s overall security as Afghanistan is. There is also reason to believe that Afghans within Afghanistan welcome India’s return to Afghanistan not least not to leave an open field for Pakistan as it did in the late 1990s when it pulled out of Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. For the Taliban too, India is a welcome development partner.

The real issue is whether India has a strategic game plan beyond winning the Taliban over for its security interests and work with all sections of the Afghan people and the international community to bring about an inclusive peace or seek an alternative, moderate Islamic end state in Afghanistan. This is not at all clear. Perhaps this is because India does not see an alternative to the Taliban at present; nor is there a regional or international coalition against the Taliban as there was in the late 1990s. No doubt, contacts with the political and armed opposition including the National Resistance Front led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud, remain, and India is an active part of the regional mechanism of national security advisors aimed at containing the spill-over of radicalism radiating out of Afghanistan. But there is no sense of working towards a pro-democratic alternative through either existing political and armed forces or a people-to-people track using education, health, media, temporary shelter for exiles in India, or creation of platforms for political activity over the long term as can be contemplated. Perhaps this is because India’s own commitment to democracy is now questionable and largely rhetorical. India needs to stay loyal to its core progressive constituency in Afghanistan in the long term through more substantive people-to-people contacts and political activity in parallel with its dealings with the Taliban if it is to counter radicalism radiating out from multiple regional and international extremist outfits in the region. Being able to manage opposing relationships and short and long term objectives is the real test of good diplomacy.

(The writer is a retired diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2013.)

Published 19 August 2022, 19:16 IST

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