Talking to the Taliban is India’s challenge

THE world watches as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan leaving the country in the throes of civil war. It will complete its withdrawal in the next few weeks by when clashes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces will be at their peak.

David Petraeus, an ex-commander of the United States in Afghanistan, an ex-director of the US Central Intelligence Agency and former President George Bush were the latest to criticise current President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw, commenting that the United States will regret its actions.

Bush added that civilians would be “slaughtered”, while Petraeus emphasised that without US support the Afghan army will find it difficult to hold the Taliban at bay. Similar views exist across the globe as violence levels rise in Afghanistan.

Petraeus also said, “It will make it more difficult for India to carry out diplomatic activity, development and other assistance”. Indian investments were never intended for profit. India gifted Afghanistan developmental projects, seeking nothing in return except goodwill. Indian consulates remain temporarily closed, mainly due to the prevailing security environment. How they would operate in the future is uncertain.

When India opened discussions with the Taliban, it was Pakistan which was most concerned. Its National Security Adviser, Moeed Yusuf, stated in a TV interview that India should be ashamed of talking to the Taliban. The reason given was, “Indians kept having the Taliban killed daily and kept giving funds for operations against them and today they have reached there to have talks”. Pakistan supported Taliban’s violence with resources and sanctuary for decades, intending for it to rule, and yet claims it seeks a coalition government in Afghanistan. Pakistan is aware that India has far more to offer Afghanistan than it ever could.

Pakistan is also aware that as civil war rages, it would face the brunt as is evident with rising attacks on Pakistani troops along the Durand Line, as well as an increasing flood of refugees.

It will be some time before the Taliban are able to capture major cities, though they already control the countryside. Afghanistan has never been a nation state; rather, it is a collection of nations (ethnicities), where regional affinities reign supreme and warlords rule. Warlord-controlled militias will either support the Taliban or the government in Kabul. Even If the Taliban capture Kabul, there would be large pockets which it would need to wrest from other groups like the Islamic State, Etim, etc, as also warlords who refuse to toe the Taliban line. Hence, Afghanistan is unlikely to be an integrated nation-state.

The longer the period of turmoil, the greater the instability in the region.

The Taliban have taken pains to assure every government with whom they have had interactions – including United States, Russia and China – that they would not permit terrorist groups to operate from Afghanistan. They have also projected that they are not outward looking and only seek to control their own country. Indian discussions with the Taliban have remained low key as New Delhi watches the situation develop. The Taliban would have given similar assurances to the Indian government. But doubts remain, based on the scenario in the early 1990s, when Afghan militants entered Kashmir in India. There has been a vast change in the security environment since then.

India continues to back the Kabul government as it also insists that talks, not violence, are the way forward. Indian investments within Afghanistan, apart from funds, include goodwill generated by scholarships as well as training and equipping its army. Any new government in Afghanistan would need administrators, many of which would be products of Indian universities. The Indian infrastructure constructed and gifted to Afghanistan will continue to be utilised by any government in power. Hence, no matter who rules Afghanistan, the Indian footprint will be omnipresent, and its investments and goodwill will never be lost.

Control over the country is currently split between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Taliban is now a major player. Thus, India needs to engage with the Taliban based on a broad strategy. Firstly, it should insist that talks remain the best solution to establishing a recognised government. A government seizing control by violence may not gain global acceptance. Simultaneously, India must continue supporting the democratically elected government.

Secondly, India’s ties with the Taliban must be steadily built, based on an assurance of not supporting anti-India groups on Afghan soil. However, like the rest of the world, within India too there are doubts whether the Taliban will keep its promise.

Thirdly, India should offer to support reconstruction and development in Afghanistan provided the government creates a conducive environment leading to India re-opening its consulates. With the development of the Chabahar port, India can provide an alternative avenue for Afghanistan, reducing its dependency on Pakistan.

The intention must be to convey that India is a partner in development and not exploitation. India has no intention of interfering in Afghanistan’s internal matters, and the strategy should be to project India as a better partner in development than others.

India, like the rest of the world remains sceptical about how the future of Afghanistan will pan out. There is no doubt that the Taliban will remain a major player. If it forgets its promise of not supporting terrorist groups, this could enhance insecurity in an entire region, spreading across India, China, Pakistan, Central Asian republics and West Asia. Nations across the region are engaging the Taliban, seeking to push it to adhere to its commitments. Indian engagement with the Taliban must aim at conveying positive thought processes and setting an agenda for reconstruction of the country. – The Statesman/Asia News Network

Harsha Kakar is a retired major-general of the Indian Army.

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