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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 40, New Delhi, Sept 18, 2021

India and the Taliban regime In Afghanistan | P. S Jayaramu

Friday 17 September 2021

by P. S Jayaramu *

(September 13, 2021)

Events in Afghanistan culminating with the withdrawal of American troops in a hasty manner and the swiftness with which the Taliban took control of the capital city of Kabul with no resistance from the Afghan militia in the absence of backup support by American soldiers has led to widespread analysis about the pros and cons of the development. While I dealt with this theme in a previous article in these columns calling it an abdication of the Biden Administration’s responsibility to the Afghan people about the genuineness and durability of its democracy project in Afghanistan, leading to similar doubts elsewhere in the developing world, my focus here is on the unfolding Indian response to the catastrophic events.

It bears recognition that our External Affairs Minister Jaishankar has been steadily monitoring the developments with a series of meetings with the Government of Qatar, the US Administration, (even by holding one to one meeting with the US Secretary of States Anthony Blinken during his visit to the United Nations to preside over a crucial Security Council meeting in New York). He also held productive meetings with his Russian counterpart and most recently with the Australian foreign minister, not to forget the meeting with the Taliban representative in Qatar, some time ago, which was described by the MEA officials as ‘reassuring’.

The official Indian response merits analysis. Before doing so, it is worth recalling that the Thinks Tanks and influential analysts in their writings have displayed extreme views with some suggesting a hyper-active engagement with the Taliban while others favour a cautious and measured response with the interim government in power in Kabul, with this writer’s views coinciding with the latter group.

Any discussion of India’s response to the Afghan developments needs to be undertaken from the wider perspective of our responsibility towards the Afghan people with whom we have centuries old contact civilisational and other contacts and the particular response to the terrorist-controlled Taliban group, though it must be conceded that the Taliban has radical, moderate and realist factions under its rubric. The Indian response has to be two-fold: One, dealing with the present Taliban regime, which the External Affairs Minister has rightly described as the ‘Afghan dispensation’. Two, like the European Union, we can and must maintain an ‘operational engagement’ with the ruling dispensation while continuing with our obligations to the Afghan nationals and reassure them of our continued commitment to their democratic aspirations. In this regard, we must work in close concert with the US and the European Governments, and the United Nations and to put pressure on the present regime in Afghanistan to accommodate democratic structures in its polity, specially recognising the rights of women and girl children for jobs and education. India must also work closely with agencies like the Food and Agricultural Organisation to ensure steady supply of food material to the hungry and the starving people in Afghanistan.

It is disappointing to note that the radical factions in the Taliban who have captured power have declared the country as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan conveying in clear terms that the country would be governed by the Shariat (Islamic) Law. All the key portfolios have been occupied by the group’s militant factions, including the globally designated terrorists and the Haqqani network, which has close ties with Al-Qaeda and the ISI. A UN report earlier this year claimed that Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is now the Interior Minister was ‘assessed to be a member of al-Qaeda’s wider leadership.

The Indian Government should continue to exert pressure on the present regime to permit those Afghan nationals who want to take refuge in India along with the Hindu and Sikh people who want to return here. The Government can work closely with the US Administration which is similarly engaged in the safe passage for its nationals.

India has also to safeguard its other interests in Afghanistan. According to reports, the Government of India has invested around 3 billion US dollars in Afghanistan’s highways, waterways, road building and development of other trade infrastructure. It is vital that talks should go on with the Taliban regime to ensure their continuity as there are reports of China replacing India in Afghanistan’s internal developmental projects. The Taliban leadership has declared that China is an important partner in the country’s development activities. Given the fact that the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has the backing of China and Pakistan and the consequent trust deficit between India and the Present regime in Afghanistan, it is likely that the Taliban leadership will do hard bargaining with India in such negotiations. It remains to be seen how the GOI is going to handle such tricky negotiations.

On the larger and more substantive issue of recognition of the ‘interim Taliban dispensation’, India would do well to go by the principles of international law which lays premium on the regime establishing full control over the territory of the entire country and ensuring the safety and security of its nationals. On both counts, the Taliban dispensation is yet to satisfy the international community, with no credible information about its full control over the entire country. As for safety and security of the Afghan nationals, it is too early to come to any judgement.

On the issue of recognition, the Indian Government might consider going along with the Russian position which was outlined by its foreign office as follows:

“we call for the establishment of an inclusive coalition government in Afghanistan that would involve all of the country’s ethnic and political forces, including ethnic minorities so that the question of recognising the country’s authorities will rise after the process is over”. (TASS, cited in the Citizen is Hopeful, 3rd, September 2021)

Of course, Moscow’s position on recognition is vital for its stability, given its ethnic problems and the possibility of Taliban groups involving themselves in creating problems for Russia. India too is apprehensive about the possible intervention by Taliban groups in its internal problems, specially in Kashmir. As such, it would do well to adopt a similar position as far as the recognition of the Taliban dispensation issue is concerned. India should be wary of the possible mischief that China and Pakistan can create for us using the regime in Afghanistan to serve their foreign policy goals.

India, along with the US and the European Union which lay emphasis on ‘operational engagement’ with the Taliban regime, should insist on written assurances from the Interim Government that the Afghan territory would not be used as a safe haven by the terrorist groups to launch strikes anywhere in the region and the world at large. Till such iron clad assurances are available, the issue of recognition of the regime should be kept on the back burner. At the same time as Afghanistan’s future is linked to regional stability and since India has her own national interests to be served, the Indian Government should continue to engage with the present dispensation in Afghanistan.

*(Author: Dr. P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University, and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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