Author : Sushant Sareen

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 08, 2022 Updated 9 Days ago
India should not press brakes on its Afghan policy and should seize the important strategic and security opportunities offered by Afghanistan.
India’s outreach to the Taliban: Engage, don’t endorse The announcement by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of a visit by a team of officials, to Kabul to oversee delivery operations and discuss India's humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan with the Taliban leaders, shouldn’t come as a surprise. For some time now, there has been a buzz in the air that India was considering some kind of outreach to the Taliban regime. There were also reports that a team of Indian officials had visited Kabul in February to explore the possibility of reopening the Indian embassy, albeit in a very scaled-down way and for a very limited purpose. Although contacts between India and the Taliban commenced long before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the first publicly acknowledged meeting between Indian officials and the Taliban took place at the request of the latter in Doha, two weeks after the Taliban captured Kabul. Feelers were also being regularly sent by the Taliban that they would like to restore relations with India. From Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid to Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, and from Anas Haqqani to Sher Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban have held out assurances of security if India opened her mission and have sought closer cultural, economic, and even security ties with India. The decision of the Indian government to send 50,000 tonnes of wheat, medicines, and vaccines to Afghanistan as humanitarian assistance provided the first big opening. Late last year, suggestions were made to the government to send a delegation to oversee the aid distribution and use the opportunity to connect with the Taliban leadership in Kabul. The proposed visit would give officials an idea of the ground situation, which would be useful in deciding the next course of action. Given that many other countries were sending delegations to Kabul, there was no reason why India should stay away from an area in which it has vital security and strategic interests.

Although contacts between India and the Taliban commenced long before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the first publicly acknowledged meeting between Indian officials and the Taliban took place at the request of the latter in Doha, two weeks after the Taliban captured Kabul.

At the time, India appeared somewhat reluctant to grab the opportunity that had presented itself. That India had recognised the reality of a Taliban regime in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future and was adjusting to it became clear after Indian officials declared that India was not interested in resurrecting any opposition to the Emirate. Whilst India wasn’t in any mood to break away from the international consensus and recognise the Emirate, it was not entirely averse to the possibility of engagement. Even so, India remained in a wait-and-watch mode, partly to see if the Taliban 2.0 was an updated version of the original Taliban, partly to observe how the dynamics between the Taliban and Pakistan played out, and partly to see how the rest of the world was reacting and responding to the developments inside Afghanistan, including Taliban’s policies on terrorism, women, minorities, and political opponents. There was probably also a political and ideological resistance on part of the government in Delhi. After all, the incongruity of taking a hard stance against Islamist terror groups operating against India and at the same time doing business with the Taliban was quite glaring. However, then diplomacy is often about holding your nose and dealing with people you despise. It isn’t that India has any illusions about what the Taliban are and what they represent. Nor does India expect the Taliban to transform. The experience of the Taliban regime in the nine months they have been in power should disabuse anyone and everyone of any notion that this is a changed Taliban. At its heart, the Taliban is an ideologically driven movement, incapable of change or any kind of evolution. Simply put, if the Taliban changed they wouldn’t remain Taliban. Their ideological fanaticism also means that they aren’t going to sever their links with other terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Jamaat Ansarullah, and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Despite this, if India is exploring the possibility of engaging with the Taliban and perhaps even considering keeping a presence in Kabul, it is only to expand the menu of options.

If India is exploring the possibility of engaging with the Taliban and perhaps even considering keeping a presence in Kabul, it is only to expand the menu of options.

Is Pakistan still pulling the strings?

After the Taliban takeover in August 2021, there was no dearth of doom and gloom scenarios about how India had suffered a serious strategic setback and would have no role or say in Afghanistan for a long time to come. However, even back then, it was quite clear that it was only a matter of time before India would be back in the game. The reason was simple: The world in the 2020s was very different from what it was in the 1990s when Pakistan was pretty much calling all the shots in Afghanistan. While Pakistan remains a pivotal player even today, its influence and control over the Taliban are just not what it was a quarter-century ago. Back in the 1990s, Pakistan wasn’t as broke as it is today. This meant that apart from security assistance Pakistan was also able to help the Taliban financially and economically. Today, Pakistan is desperate to stay afloat and just doesn’t have the economic wherewithal to give any meaningful assistance to the Taliban. Diplomatically, Pakistan was a lot more relevant in international affairs in the 1990s than it is today. It was able to accord full diplomatic recognition to the Taliban regime on its own without bothering about the rest of the world. It used its equities in the Middle East to get Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to recognise the Taliban. Today, Pakistan doesn’t have the diplomatic space to recognise on its own and is, therefore, desperately lobbying for some other country to recognise the Emirate so that it too can do the same. The Taliban are watching this very closely and realising the limitations of depending overly on Pakistan. In the mid-1990s there was no TTP that wreaked havoc inside Pakistan; Al-Qaeda was a fledgling organisation; ISIS was nowhere on the horizon. Today, the TTP presents a very serious threat to Pakistan; Al Qaeda is also getting into the act; the local chapter of ISIS— ISKP—poses a potent threat to both Taliban and Pakistan. In other words, Pakistan’s ability to influence the Taliban is circumscribed by its own economic, diplomatic, and security challenges.

Taliban 2.0

The Taliban have also changed—not ideologically but organisationally. There are tribal, regional, political, and even policy-based (between the pragmatists and hard-liners) divisions in the Taliban that were not so visible back in the 1990s. For now, the tussle between the different factions has not shown any signs of escalating into an internecine conflict. However, it does create some space for India, especially because some of these factions are not exactly enamoured of Pakistan which treated many Taliban leaders very shabbily, bullying them, incarcerating them, and blackmailing them to make them compliant. Developing relations with India gives them certain leverage over Pakistan. The way this dynamic play is that the more overbearing Pakistan becomes, the more Afghans will gravitate toward India.

Pakistan doesn’t have the diplomatic space to recognise on its own and is, therefore, desperately lobbying for some other country to recognise the Emirate so that it too can do the same.

However, the Taliban are wily enough to know that the India card only works up to a point. Unlike India which depends overly on soft power, the Taliban understands they need hard power leverages to keep Pakistan in check. This is probably the reason why even the factions beholden to Pakistan— the Haqqani network—have set limits to which they can and will do Pakistan's bidding. This is evident in the way the Taliban are handling the talks between the TTP and Pakistani authorities. While the Taliban are facilitating TTP-Pakistan talks, there is pressure on Pakistan to accommodate the TTP. Pakistan’s predicament is that if the talks succeed, it will mean ceding space to TTP; on the other hand, if the talks collapse, the TTP will go on the warpath and add to Pakistan's existential crisis. And it is not just the TTP that is being used as leverage. The Taliban will not be averse to using the Baloch insurgents and even groups like al-Qaeda against Pakistan if push comes to shove.

Engage, isolate, or oppose

As things stand, broadly speaking, the options available to India are no different than those available to any other country. The Americans have summed these up in three words: Engage, isolate, or oppose. The US officials say that they are focused on the first two options and the third option is, for now, off the table. India has so far focused only on the isolate option. However, beyond a point, this option will yield diminishing returns, especially because many other countries are now starting to ‘engage’ the Taliban. Contradictory though it may appear, most countries are adopting a policy of both engaging and isolating the Taliban. They are engaging by holding a dialogue, providing humanitarian, and even some economic assistance, reopening their missions and pushing the Taliban to live up to some of their commitments on human rights, women, and minority rights, and giving safe passage to Afghans who want to leave. At the same time, they are isolating the Taliban by holding back on formal diplomatic recognition, providing aid, and assistance to the regime, and giving access to the international financial system.

They are engaging by holding a dialogue, providing humanitarian, and even some economic assistance, reopening their missions and pushing the Taliban to live up to some of their commitments on human rights, women, and minority rights, and giving safe passage to Afghans who want to leave.

The Indian policy should incorporate all three options, with some differences. While there is a case for India to engage with the Taliban, India must simultaneously reach out to its old friends, most of who are in exile. As a country that is rooting for stability in Afghanistan and is pushing for an inclusive government, India can use its contacts with the exiles to push for reconciliation. The last thing India should do is dump old friends to make new ones. As part of its engagement, India can reopen not just its embassy, but also its four consulates. This will be a litmus test of sorts to see how much the Taliban are independent of Pakistani influence. Engagement will also mean giving some economic, development, and humanitarian assistance. Even as India engages the Taliban, it must simultaneously isolate the Taliban, and not break ranks with the rest of the international community. Although the Pakistanis are quite terrified of the prospect of India according to formal recognition to Taliban before them, India should desist from any such cleverness because it will backfire. Amongst other things, such a move will open the door for Pakistan to formally recognise the Taliban. Keeping the Taliban isolated and under the pressure of international sanctions is something India should support. The last prong of India's approach has to be to oppose the Taliban, not just diplomatically and politically, but also by covertly supporting anti-Taliban forces. After all, the Taliban are doing the same by fraternising with organisations like Jaish-e-Mohammed and al-Qaeda. If anything, this can be India’s carrot-and-stick approach with the Taliban. If they remain recalcitrant, then it is quite likely other countries will also start supporting the anti-Taliban forces, which will add to India’s diplomatic and strategic heft in Afghanistan. Of course, all this assumes India is ready to play hardball. There are never any full stops in Afghanistan and, therefore, there is no reason why India should put any full stops in the path of its policy in Afghanistan. Pragmatism combined with some hard-nosed moves is the way to not just get back in the game, but also guide its course to the extent possible.
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Author

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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