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After a strategic retreat from Kabul following the Taliban takeover in August 2021, India has re-established its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. India has deployed a team in its embassy in Kabul, 10 months after it pulled out its officials from the mission following the Taliban’s capture of power. The current state of affairs is far from being business as usual. However, India is on the path for enhancing engagement with the new regime in Afghanistan. The engagement will be full of challenges, but with a well-planned and long-term strategy it has the potency of securing many of India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan and the region.
What has been India’s Approach towards Taliban?
India had refused to recognise the Taliban regime of 1996-2001. India had at that time supported the ‘Northern Alliance’ in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The alliance was a united military front that came to formation in late 1996 after the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban) took over Kabul. It fought a war with the Taliban in 2001. This ended the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan.
India has long held the position of dealing only with the elected government in Kabul. India supports an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace process. Due to this, India pulled out its officials from its embassy following the Taliban’s capture of power in August 2021.
India was the one of the first countries to immediately ban all Afghans traveling to India, including students and patients with a valid Indian visa. However, India has been showing flexibility in its earlier rigid policy of engagement with Taliban considering the changing geopolitical landscape.
How has India sustained its engagement after the takeover by Taliban?
Even after the closure of the consulates and embassy, India continued to express concerns about the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
It built regional consensus about the threat of terrorism, voiced its support for an inclusive government, and provided aid and assistance to the people of Afghanistan. Much of this is in sync with the Agreement on Strategic Partnership (ASP) that India had signed in October 2011.
However, India chose to abstain from the UN Security Council’s calling on the Taliban to open girl schools. It continues to remain silent about the worsening situation in Afghanistan.
India is one of the most visible actor in Afghanistan in humanitarian support post Taliban takeover. India has supplied 20,000 metric tonnes of wheat, 13 tonnes of medicines, winter clothing, 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Afghanistan, as well as 1 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines for Afghan refugees in Iran.
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Recently, India sent a small technical team to Kabul in June 2022, to deal with the humanitarian crisis following the earthquake in Paktika and Khost provinces as a first responder.
What is the need to engage with the Taliban?
Security: A stable Afghanistan is crucial for regional and domestic security of India. With Afghanistan becoming a centre of radical ideology and violence, such a development would affect Pakistan and inevitably reach India. Engangement is desired to prevent Afghanistan from becoming another safe haven for anti-India terrorist groups, and also check Pakistan’s deepening influence in Kabul.
The Taliban’s victory realised two important ideological and strategic goals of militant Islamists and their Pakistani patron: (a) Establishing a “pure Islamic Government” in the Heart of Asia; (b) Securing Pakistan’s “Strategic Depth”. The two concepts are necessary pre-conditions for attaining another long-held vision of Islamists.
Connectivity: The most important role of Afghanistan is always considered as India’s gateway to Central Asia. It implies continental outreach. For instance, connectivity with Afghanistan and further with Central Asia have been primarily the reasons for India’s engagement with Iran to develop Chabahar port.
Strengthening regional foothold: Increasing strategic engagements with Afghanistan is beneficial for strengthening a foothold in the region. For example, India’s relations with Iran at present are dominated by oil. Diversification of engagements would strengthen India’s relations with Iran and other countries.
Energy Security: To address its energy needs and to sustain its economic growth, pipelines from Iran and Central Asia would be extremely important. India sees Afghanistan as an essential component of the TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan,India) pipeline.
Trade: In case of trade, Afghanistan can help India export its products to Europe, gaining foreign exchange. The railway line from Chabahar to Zahedan in Afghanistan envisages to connect New Delhi with Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Europe.
Diplomatic Outreach by Taliban: The Taliban have also tried to reach out to India. Indian Officials had first met Taliban’s Political Head in Doha (Qatar) in August 2021 at the request of Taliban. In the 1990s, the Taliban had excessive reliance on Pakistan for international recognition. However, circumstances are now different, Pakistan’s economy is in shambles and its diplomatic space has contracted considerably. India’s economy and international standing has improved appreciably since 1990s. Taliban realizes that it has to reach out to all regional powers, especially India, to get international recognition for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
India had considerable presence in Afghanistan before Taliban’s takeover.
What does the change in India’s stance signify?
First, there seems to be a definite realization that the Taliban regime is there to stay and no amount of pressure building will dislodge it from power at least in the near-medium term. There are indications of the development of some opposition to the Taliban in the Panjshir valley. However, there is also no indication of a popular countrywide upsurge which could push them out.
Second, there seems to be some convergence in the policy and strategic circles that engagement, not complete detachment, could be the key to securing India’s vital strategic interests in Afghanistan. This needs to be done when the Taliban regime is still isolated internationally and therefore amenable to India’s presence.
The complexity of circumstances in Afghanistan leaves very limited options, as summed by the US Officials: Engage, Isolate, or Oppose. The US officials say they are focusing on the first two options. India’s approach appears to be similar.
Third, it shows that India is unwilling to repeat the past mistake of 1996, when New Delhi shut its embassy for 5 years, reducing Afghanistan to a strategic and intelligence black hole.
Fourth, it will give India an opportunity to exploit the divisions within the Taliban to win over the moderates and dilute the agenda of the hardliners.
Fifth, India understood that its absence was working to the advantage of countries who did not wish it to return and were using the space to restart proxy warfare.
What are the challenges in engaging with the Taliban?
Lack of Legitimacy: Taliban still doesn’t command legitimacy of the majority population. It is controlling them by sheer use of force which may give rise to another civil war and bring instability in the region.
Human Rights Violations: The Taliban have excluded all non-Taliban Pashtuns from public space as is shown by the house detention of former President Hamid Karzai. There are also systematic violations of the human rights of the non-Pashtun communities which amount to crime against humanity, and ethnic cleansing which borders on genocide.
Regressive Outlook: Taliban is a predominantly Pashtun men-only regime which has imposed harsh restrictions on women at home. Its orthodoxy may bring more misery for women in future and undermine gender equality.
Mistrust on Taliban: Though there are indications of a policy shift but still there has been a high degree of mistrust on Taliban since the Hijack of an Air India flight to Kandahar in 1999.
External State Influence: Pakistan and China will place numerous barriers to diminish the growing closeness of India and Taliban. Since August 15, 2021, Afghanistan has descended from a Pax Americana experiment to a “Pax Pakistana” ambition.
What lies ahead?
First, for now, the ‘engagement’ formula seems to work for both. Engagement by India will enhance the profile of the former insurgents and may even be the mark of an ice-breaking event following which other countries will follow suit. On the other hand, it may also allow India to moderate the radical stance of the Taliban. For instance, the Taliban has followed up with two back-to-back statements on strengthening its defense relationship with India. It is also offering to welcome former members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) trained in India back to their jobs.
Second, India needs to frame a comprehensive long-term policy of engagement with all the stakeholders to ensure that peace and stability return to Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan and not the current regime needs to remain at the centre of its declared Afghan policy.
Third, the prospects for peace and stability in Afghanistan under a Pax Pakistana lordship are not feasible as Pakistan itself is overwhelmed by multiple internal and external challenges. Afghanistan needs a strong UN mandate, including a UN-led political transition process supported by a UN peacekeeping force. India can lend its support to such endeavors which are worthy of its character, ambition and Afghanistan’s needs.
India should work with other regional and global players to push the Taliban to adopt a more inclusive regime. At the same time, it should maintain a policy of gradual bilateral engagement rooted in realism.