On August 15, 2021, the Taliban entered Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, and established control over the country. This marked the culmination of months of violence that unfolded after the USA began withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan after two decades. Since then, the dynamics of the region have changed drastically, forcing every country to recalibrate its policy in the wake of new geopolitical realities.
India, one of the oldest and strongest partners of Afghan people, has been forced to make hard choices. As a regional power, India has huge stakes in Afghanistan’s peace and progress. In the fourth Regional Security Dialogue, held in May 2022, India’s NSA Ajit Doval rightly pointed out that unlike the West, the regional countries have no easy choice with regards to Afghanistan.
India closed its mission in Afghanistan in August last year. The embassy was reopened in June, 2022, to disburse relief materials sent by India after a devastating earthquake hit Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in November 2021, India took the initiative to hold the third Security Dialogue on Afghanistan that expressed deep concerns over the suffering of the Afghan people in its ‘Delhi Declaration’.
What are the challenges faced by India after the Taliban takeover?
For the past twenty years, India has been a champion of elected government in Afghanistan. Thus, it supported the Afghan government and invested heavily in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Until then, India had never engaged with the Taliban. But, today if India wants development in Afghanistan, it has no choice but interact with the terrorist organisation it has always condemned.
With the Taliban in power, the security of the region, especially Kashmir, has become a major concern. Reports suggest that terrorist outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed have shifted their camps from Pakistan to Afghanistan. The main aim of these groups is to create unrest in Kashmir. These groups helped the Taliban in their fight against the US-led coalition. With matters settling down in Afghanistan, their focus will shift to India.
Other outfits like Al Qaeda and IS-Khorasan, too, have gained new energy. In June, IS-Khorasan attacked a Sikh Gurudwara in Kabul after the Prophet Muhammad row erupted in India. Adding to the woes is the advanced weapons like M16 left by the USA in Afghanistan that are now in the Taliban’s control.
India has another daunting task to preserve its assets built over the past two decades. India has invested heavily in the reconstruction of Afghanistan in the last twenty years and has given aid of over 3 billion US dollars. These include projects like the Afghan Parliament, children’s hospitals, libraries, dams, power projects, etc.
The US’s withdrawal has left a power vacuum in Afghanistan, where China and Pakistan would swoop in if India remains a passive player in the region. Thus, to safeguard its interests, India must step in and fill the void.
Till now, China adopted “calculative engagement” in Afghanistan. Now, China will leverage the power vacuum left in the country that would help it with its ambitious OBOR project and also keep any Uighur uprising in check. Meanwhile, Pakistan seeks strategic depth in Afghanistan to sabotage Indian interests in the region.
The biggest conundrum facing India is to remain a relevant player in the region without benefiting the Taliban. The Taliban is not an elected, representative government in Afghanistan. It has usurped power by the barrel of the gun. Thus, India cannot afford to act as an opportunistic salesman in the region like the West, or China. A nation is known by the value it upholds. However, a nation’s first priority is securing its national interest.
What should be India’s approach?
In the words of External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, India has the goal of ‘double peace’ – peace within Afghanistan as well as in the region.
In this direction, the first step is, undoubtedly, to recognize the undeniable reality that the Taliban now holds the reins of Afghanistan. It is now the de facto ruler with no potent challenger—internal or external.
Thus, for India, there is no other alternative but to engage with it. Apart from Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran (which never closed its missions in Afghanistan), several other countries have begun to reopen their embassies. The USA is also conducting its engagements from Doha. India reopening its embassy in June was a step in the right direction.
However, India has crafted a judicious separation between the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan. Thus, it is helping Afghan people without helping the Taliban. India has had a historic relationship with the Afghan people. So much so that India is the most popular country among Afghan people.
Thus, in this hour of need, India should continue its humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. This was evident in the relief materials sent by India after the earthquake hit Afghanistan. This sent a strong signal not only to the Afghan people but also to the countries around Afghanistan that have been a source of instability.
India needs to have a ground presence in Afghanistan to counter the anti-India narrative being peddled by Pakistan. In recent times, a drift can be seen between the Taliban and Pakistan’s ISI. This is due to the terror outfit called Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which owes allegiance to the Afghan Taliban and is anti-state in Pakistan. Besides, the Durand Line is another bone of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Any drift between these two countries provides space for India to step up its presence in Afghanistan.
However, given the Taliban’s ideology, any long-term engagement seems difficult. Some scholars, such as Vishal Chandra, research fellow at MP-IDSA, believes that Taliban 2.0 seems to have drawn lessons from the 1990s. The way they have conducted themselves from 2018 onwards suggests that they understand the language of diplomacy. Thus, on several occasions, they have given security assurances to India.
The lesson that India should learn from its past experiences is that it should not limit itself to a soft power role and engage with whatever government is in power. The IC 814 hijack in December 1999 is a grim reminder.
As far as the issue of recognising the Taliban is concerned, most experts agree that it is too early to decide. No major country has yet moved in this direction. Given the Taliban’s records of gross human rights violations, especially of women and minorities, it is unlikely that any such recognition is coming soon. In its recent deliberations in May, UNSC expressed concerns about the erosion of respect for human rights in the country.
Taliban is the new reality—for how long, time will tell. However, at present, for India to secure its national interest and maintain peace in the region, she has no other option but to engage with the Taliban. Meanwhile, India remains steadfast to its principle that the common people should not suffer due to a tussle with the government—be it Afghanistan or Ukraine.