India must directly engage with Taliban 2.0

Source: The Hindu

Relevance: India’s future Afghan policy in the light of American exit from Afghanistan.

Synopsis: India must reset its Afghan policy. Engagement with Taliban is a reality which cannot be ignored.

Background

With the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan in process, New Delhi has decided to ramp down its civilian presence in the war-torn country, bracing for a full-blown civil war.

  • India has ‘temporarily’ closed its consulate in Kandahar and evacuated its diplomats and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel stationed there.
  • This follows the decision to suspend operations in the Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Herat.
  • As a result, India today is left with its Embassy in Kabul and the consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif.
What should India do?

Open talks with Taliban: India must, in its own national interest, begin ‘open talks’ with Taliban. However, this doesn’t mean that India should give recognition to the Taliban.

Evolution India’s Taliban policy

India’s Taliban policy has witnessed a gradual change over the past few years.

  • In late 2018, when Moscow organised a conference which had the Taliban, members of the Afghan High Peace Council, and other countries from the region in attendance, India sent a ‘non-official delegation’ of two retired diplomats to Moscow.
  • In September 2020, India’s External Affairs Minister joined the inaugural session of the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha.
  • Indirect talks with Taliban: Reports have indicated that India has started reaching out to the Taliban which was indirectly confirmed by the Ministry of External Affairs when it said “we are in touch with various stakeholders in pursuance of our long-term commitment towards development and reconstruction in Afghanistan”.
Rationale behind indirect talks

There are at least five possible reasons why New Delhi appears to want to keep the Taliban engagement slow and behind closed doors.

  1. Could push Afghan President towards China: If New Delhi chooses to engage the Taliban directly, it could potentially push Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani towards China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for national security and personal political survival.
  2. With whom to talk within Taliban: Decision makers in New Delhi are also faced with the dilemma of whom to talk to within the Taliban. New Delhi may have little access to the members of the Quetta Shura or the fighters on the ground in Afghanistan.
  3. Poor global image of Taliban: Given the global criticism that the Taliban faced earlier and the lack of evidence about whether the outfit is a changed lot today, New Delhi might not want to open direct talks with the Taliban so soon.
  4. Retaliation by Pakistan:  Finally, it would not be totally unreasonable to consider the possibility of Pakistan acting out against India in Kashmir if India were to establish deeper links with the Taliban.
Why India should engage the Taliban directly?
  • Other countries will engage with the Taliban: Taliban is going to be part of the political scheme of things in Afghanistan, and unlike in 1996. A large number of players in the international community are going to recognise/negotiate/do business with the Taliban. So, basic statecraft requires that we follow that route as well.
  • Countering Pakistan-Taliban relations: The Taliban today is looking for regional and global partners for recognition and legitimacy, especially in the neighborhood. So the less proactive the Indian engagement with the Taliban, the stronger Pakistan-Taliban relations would become.
  • Withdrawal shows a weak strategic resolve: India needs to court all parties in Afghanistan, including the Taliban if it wants to ensure the security of its civilian assets there. Withdrawing from Afghanistan now because the Taliban is on the rise (and we do not want to have relations with them) will go on to highlight how weak our strategic resolve is.
  • Opportunity for other countries:  if India is not proactive in Afghanistan at least now, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and China will emerge as the shapers of Afghanistan’s political and geopolitical destiny. This will be detrimental to Indian interests.
Way forward

India as of now is strategically limited to Indo-pacific arena. Afghanistan could provide, if not immediately, India with a way out.

Also Read: India’s future Afghan policy – Explained

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