Gradual engagement – India should maintain with Afghanistan a policy of engagement rooted in realism

News: India has sent a multi-member team of senior diplomats to Afghanistan for the first time since the Indian Embassy in Kabul was evacuated in August 2021 following the arrival of the Taliban in the Afghan capital.

The MEA has said that the visit is only to help coordinate India’s humanitarian assistance for the Afghanistan people.

During discussions with the Indian delegation, the Taliban urged India to reopen its embassy in Kabul.

What is the significance of the visit?

Gradual engagement: The visit acquires significance as India has refused to recognise the Taliban administration in Afghanistan and has urged the international community to go slow in recognising the Taliban.

The visit also shows a marked difference from the policy New Delhi took in the 1990s when the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan. Back then, India had taken a policy of disengagement with Kabul and supported anti-Taliban militias.

But this time, many neighboring countries including India have adopted a constructive line towards the Taliban regime, despite their differences with the group’s extremism.

Developments in India-Taliban relations

India closed its embassy in Kabul in August 2021, days before the Taliban takeover, but has maintained a line of communication with them.

In September, India’s Ambassador to Qatar, met Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, a senior Taliban official, at the Indian Embassy in Doha.

In October, Indian officials met the Taliban’s Deputy Prime Minister, Abdul Salam Hanafi, in Moscow at a regional conference on Afghanistan. Here, India also joined nine other countries to recognise the “new reality” in Afghanistan.

Later, New Delhi sent humanitarian assistance, including wheat, COVID-19 vaccines and winter clothes, to Afghanistan when the country was facing a near-total economic collapse.

What are India’s concerns?

India has three main concerns when it comes to the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan.

One, India has made investments worth billions of dollars in the past 20 years. It would want to protect these investments and retain the Afghan people’s goodwill.

Two, when the Taliban were in power in the 1990s, Afghanistan became a safe haven for anti-India terrorist groups. India also saw a sharp rise in violence in Kashmir during the Mujahideen-Taliban reigns of Afghanistan. New Delhi would not like history to repeat itself and would want commitments from the Taliban that they would not offer support for anti-India groups.

Three, the Taliban remaining a Pakistani satellite forever is not in India’s strategic interest.

Way forward

New Delhi cannot pursue any of its objectives if it does not engage with the Taliban.

But, at the same time, India should not hurry in to offer diplomatic recognition to the Taliban’s predominantly Pashtun, men-only regime, which has imposed harsh restrictions on women at home.

India should work with other regional and global players to push the Taliban to adopt a more inclusive regime, while at the same time maintaining a policy of gradual bilateral engagement rooted in realism.

Source: This post is based on the article “Gradual engagement – India should maintain with Afghanistan a policy of engagement rooted in realism” published in The Hindu on 4th June 22.

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